Mother Angelica’s Joyful Life and Reaching the Masses

Gillian Weyant

Mother Angelica’s Joyful Life and Reaching the Masses

For decades, Mother Angelica has been one of the more prominent figures in the Catholic Church.  Her joyful life as a Franciscan nun combined with her efforts in establishing the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) made her a charismatic and impactful presence in the modern-day Church.  Mother Angelica enabled millions and millions of Catholics to be reached in their homes through the media of television and radio, allowing the homebound to watch daily mass, the lonely to pray a rosary with others, and lay Catholics everywhere to feel their union with Rome by viewing papal addresses and masses in Vatican City. At the time of her death in 2016, Mother Angelica left behind a powerful Catholic media company, showing that the Church truly belongs in everyday life along with everything else.  Her life and work have been of great importance, and it is clear that the presence of God was with her in all of her efforts.  Learning about her life beginning from the early days can give us great insight about the many ways in which the Lord can work through His people.

Early Life

Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, in April 1923.  Her parents were John and Mae Gianfrancesco Rizzo.  Rita was born into difficult circumstances, since her father was abusive and resented the fact that he had a child at all, and her mother was mentally unstable.  In addition to the difficulties Rita encountered at home from an early age, her surroundings were full of trials far beyond what any child should have to face.  Canton at that time was ruled by the Sicilian Black Hand, an Italian method of extortion that was practiced by the mafia and other gang members.  Rita thus was confronted from an early age with the dangerous realities of mob violence, prostitution, drugs and poverty.

To make matters worse, John abandoned Mae and Rita when Rita was only five, forcing Rita and Mae to move into harsh and crowded conditions with Mae’s parents Anthony and Mary Gianfrancesco.  Although her parents were not religious, Mae joined St. Anthony’s Church in the late 1920s and Rita became acquainted with Catholicism.  In 1930, John Rizzo attempted to return to his wife and daughter, but Mae filed for civil divorce and refused to allow him back into their lives.  The stigma that surrounded divorce in the 1930s was so great that it ultimately led to Mae and Rita leaving the Church for a decade, since Mae felt that she had been deeply mistreated by priests even in the confessional.

Throughout the next ten or so years, Rita’s life continued to be one of struggle.  She was consistently distracted in school by the major issues in her home life, and so performed rather poorly.  Her mother often threatened suicide, and so eleven-year-old Rita was forced to grow up all too quickly, even going so far as to take on her mother’s work responsibilities when Mae was incapacitated by her depression.  Rita also began to experience health issues at this time.  They did not hinder her from working, however, and she worked multiple jobs in her late teenage years.

A Cloister… Is a Heaven on Earth: Rita’s Entrance into Religious Life

As Rita approached her twenties, her health began to worsen.  She suffered from what would later be diagnosed as ptosis of the stomach, an ailment severe enough to cause muscle spasms and mild paralysis.  After years of enduring pain, Rita and her mother paid a visit to a woman by the name of Rhonda Wise, who was known at the time as a mystic and who had a great devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux.  Wise instructed Rita to pray a novena, and after Rita completed this novena in the year 1943, she felt her pain leave her and in her heart realized that she had been miraculously cured.

Although Rita had been away from the Church for a long time at this point, this experience of healing was profoundly meaningful to her, and was instrumental in her full and enthusiastic return to the Church.  She later told interviewers that she was so deeply grateful for the gift of health that she could wish for nothing else but to serve God for the remainder of her life.  In 1944, after spending time in prayer at St. Anthony’s Church – the same church she had attended with her mother years before – Rita began to feel that God was calling her to the religious life.  Like most things in Rita’s life up until this point, entrance into a convent was no simple task.  Her poor grades from years of troubled schooling and her mentally unstable mother both were prohibitive to an easy entrance into a convent.

Rita, however, was undeterred.  After visiting several convents, Rita was accepted by an order of Franciscan nuns at St. Paul’s Shrine of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland.  She was here vested as a Poor Clare, and professed her final vows in 1953 as Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation (a name chosen by her mother).

Sister Angelica’s Mission

In the early years of her religious life, Sister Angelica distinguished herself by having a proactive spirit and a ready willingness to accomplish necessary tasks, from the menial to the great.  She rose up against the prevalent racism of her time by focusing on forming a religious community in the South that was especially welcoming to black women.  After a complicated series of events, Sister Angelica was granted permission to open this convent and was given a special dispensation to become the abbess at the young age of 37.  She became known as Mother Angelica in 1960 and opened Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Alabama.

It was in the process of founding this monastery that Mother Angelica began to realize the immense potential of media.  She began to record a series of talks in 1962 and was encouraged to continue by her bishop, who noticed her conversational style and exceptional skill at communicating with laypeople.  She followed his instructions through several forms of media, including radio and the written word, and eventually began to videotape her talks for television.  These talks aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network, and when Mother Angelica realized the number of people able to be reached through the medium of television, she put forth unbelievable efforts to found the Eternal Word Television Network.  EWTN, in 1981, became the first Catholic television network in the United States after Mother Angelica received a blessing from Rome and permission to continue her endeavors.

It was during this time that Mother Angelica’s faith and trust in the Lord was truly unmistakable.  Her vision for evangelizing through new media was clear and powerful, and she resolved to do so at no cost to the viewer, hoping that she might be able to reach the largest audience possible.  She managed to raise enormous funds over the years, and exceeded the financial goals EWTN needed to at least meet in order to continue with its mission.  Its programming increased in hours each day, and EWTN debuted several types of Catholic programs, including complete and unedited live coverage of Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1987 – a feat which had never been accomplished before.  That same year, EWTN expanded to 24-hour coverage, and the Network reached 10 million subscribers.  Mother Angelica also felt that she was called to begin a radio network as well, and so founded the Worldwide Eternal Word Network in 1988.  EWTN continues to thrive today, reaching millions upon millions of homes and sharing the light of the Gospel through the lens of modern technology.

In the World But Not Of It

After experiencing many years of declining health, Mother Angelica died on March 27, 2016. She remained strong and holy until the end, offering up her numerous pains in union with the suffering of Christ; fittingly, she began to die on Good Friday, and finally went to be with God on Easter Sunday.  She left behind a true legacy.  EWTN remains a success as it continues to offer around-the-clock Catholic programs, including a daily Mass, catechesis for children and adults, recitations of the rosary, live broadcasts of papal events, coverage of World Youth Days and discussions of theological topics relevant to the modern Catholic life.

Mother Angelica’s founding of EWTN perfectly exemplifies how we can respond to God’s call to be in the world but not of it.  In utilizing modern technological advances to uphold Church tradition, Mother Angelica showed that it was possible to be prayerful, reverent and contemplative all while using modern tools to unite ourselves to fellow members of the Church and show our faith to those who may not yet have it.  Mother Angelica’s life and work can be tremendously inspirational to all Catholics, since it was imperative to her that tradition be preserved yet also made known to all with modern technology.  Like Mother Angelica, we too can use everything in our lives to help unite ourselves and others to God.