Mother Mary Angelica founded Eternal Word Television Network in 1981 with $200 in the bank. EWTN would become the world’s largest religious broadcasting network. This Poor Clare nun did what the U.S. Catholic bishops couldn’t do–set up a network people would tune in to. And she conveyed her message the world over–from her humble Irondale, Ala., studios.
Born Rita Rizzo, Mother Angelica is the kind of woman feminists would put on a trading card if they could get beyond their cookie-cutter litmus tests. Rizzo’s resolve has been characterized by top brass, religious and secular alike.
“(S)trong woman, courageous woman, charismatic woman,” is how the late Pope John Paul II described her. Time once called her “the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.” Her biographer calls her: “Steely yet feminine; guarded yet open; forged by fire and lasting.” And though a successful entrepreneur and CEO, at heart: “a simple, deeply spiritual woman struggling to do God’s will and to overcome her personal failings.”
Mother Angelica was no communications major, but followed what she felt called to do. She knew pretty much zip about making television and radio work. In fact, when I interviewed her in 2000, she told me that along the way “A lot of things didn’t make sense.” But the little sister had faith and that kept her show running. She joked: “I think if you are ignorant enough, the Lord helps you out or you wind up in jail.” I’m pretty sure that must have been her attitude when running St. Peter’s Fishing Lures, a mail-order business fundraiser back before there was an EWTN.
And, no, she didn’t know anything about fishing, either.
Even if you’ve never heard her name before reading this, by now you already know this nun is a character. But she’s much deeper than that, and has always had one main goal in mind. Mother Angelica once said on her live TV show, “Many of you listening tonight, you listen because I am earthy and rather saucy. You’re right … but I don’t want you to listen to me for that. I want you to listen to this network because you want to get closer to the Lord.” But I doubt she really minded if it was the sauciness that reeled you in. As long as you were hearing a little of that “Eternal Word.”
Mother Angelica, now 82, doesn’t do the live shows anymore, sidelined and largely silenced by a 2001 stroke. But her network, which she resigned from that year, is currently celebrating its 25th year–alive and well with an array of programs and projects. (EWTN is in 118 million TV households in 127 countries, doing everything from shortwave to podcasts.) And her fascinating tale of a humble, faithful woman with the willingness to serve God in whatever way He seems to want her; a smart cookie who was doing the unprecedented right alongside Ted Turner in the Eighties (they even shared a lawyer); a sickly girl who grew up abandoned by her father and was told by a nun in 1933 that “You want to be so much and in the end you don’t amount to anything,” is the subject of Raymond Arroyo’s recently released biography Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.
You don’t have to be Catholic or agree with everything she has to say to admire this woman’s achievements, her work ethic, her faith–and to get a kick out of her sense of humor. In terms of pure milestones, Arroyo has pointed out: “This is the first woman in the history of television to found a not-for-profit cable network. The only woman in the history of television to create a network that for 25 years has sustained itself only with the donations of her audience.”
If you’re looking for inspiration this Christmas season, look no further than Mother Angelica’s life story.
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