Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, PCPA (born Rita Antoinette Rizzo; April 20, 1923 – March 27, 2016), usually known as Mother Angelica, was an American Franciscan nun best known as a television personality, and the founder of both the internationally-broadcast cable television network Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and the radio network WEWN.
In 1981, Mother Angelica started broadcasting religious programs from a converted garage in Birmingham, Alabama. Over the next twenty years, she developed a media network that included radio, TV, and internet channels as well as printed media.
Mother Angelica hosted shows on EWTN until she had a stroke in 2001. She continued to live in the cloistered monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, until her death at age 92 on March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday.
The future Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio, in a community of African-American and Italian immigrant mill workers. Of Italian American background, she was the only child of John and Mae Helen Rizzo (née Gianfrancesco). Her father, a tailor by trade, abandoned the family when Rizzo was only five and her parents divorced two years later in 1929. On March 10, 1931 her mother was granted custody of the young Rizzo, and her father ordered to pay five dollars a week in child support. Her mother only received "intermittent child-support payments from the feckless father". While maintaining full custody, her mother struggled with chronic depression and poverty. This was in part because being a divorcée carried a social stigma at the time and the opportunities for a woman to secure income were limited especially in the height of the great depression.
Looking back at her childhood, Mother Angelica described herself and her mother as being "like a pair of refugees. We were poor, hungry, and barely surviving on odd jobs before Mother learned the dry cleaning business as an apprentice to a Jewish tailor in our area. Even then, we pinched pennies just to keep food on the table." The pair lived with her maternal grandparents, moving out for a time between 1933-1937, but were forced to return because of financial pressures. Matters were complicated when her grandfather Anthony Gianfancesco suffered a stroke in their absence, which paralyzed him on one side and required him to use a cane.
Rizzo attended Canton McKinley High School, where she was one of the school's first drum majorettes. She later told an interviewer, "I did very poorly in school. I wasn’t interested in the capital of Ohio. I was interested in whether my mother had committed suicide that day." Rizzo developed no intimate friendships in high school in part because of the fear that it would further upset her mother, who might see other demands for attention as a threat. Rizzo never dated, recalling later, "I never had a date, never wanted one. I just didn't have any desire. I suppose having experienced the worst of married life, it was not at all attractive to me." In 1939, Rizzo, feeling overwhelmed by crowd noise and school chatter, began to leave McKinley High in the afternoons. She was given calcium and nerve medication to treat what was deemed a nervous condition. When her mother's mental condition seemed to get worse, she made arrangements with her grandparents to have her sent to Philadelphia to be with Rizzo's aunt Rose.
A stomach ailment that Rizzo had from 1939 continued to cause severe abdominal pain, despite extensive medical treatment. Her mother took her to Rhoda Wise who was hailed as a mystic and stigmatic and "who claimed to receive visions of St Thérèse of Lisieux." Wise instructed Rizzo to perform "a novena (a nine-day course of prayers) and made the girl promise that she would spread devotion to the saint if she was cured."
On the novena’s final day, January 18, 1943, Rizzo declared that she woke up with no pain and the abdominal lump causing it had vanished. This experience profoundly touched her; she believed that God had performed a miracle and she traced her lifelong commitment to God to this event. She later told an interviewer that at that point "I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus."
One evening in 1944, Rizzo stopped at a church to pray and felt that God was calling her to be a nun. She sought guidance from a local parish priest who encouraged her to begin visiting convents. Her first visit was to the Sisters of St. Joseph in Buffalo, New York. The active congregation felt, however, that she was better suited to the contemplative life. She also visited Saint Paul's Shrine of Perpetual Adoration, a facility operated by an order of cloistered contemplative nuns, located in Cleveland, Ohio. When visiting this order, she felt as if she were at home. The order accepted her as a postulant, asking her to enter on August 15, 1944. She was 21 years old.
On November 8, 1945, Rizzo was vested as a Poor Clare nun. She received a new name, which her mother had chosen for her, and title, "Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation". Soon afterwards, the Cleveland monastery established a new monastery in her home town of Canton and she moved there.
In 1946, as a young nun, Sister Angelica had an accident with an industrial floor-scrubbing machine that knocked her over and injured her spine, causing her ongoing pain and requiring her to wear leg braces for most of her life. Sister Angelica saw the occurrence as a divine sign and promised Jesus to build a new monastery deep in the Protestant dominated Southern United States if she recovered.
On January 2, 1953, she made her solemn profession of vows at Sancta Clara Monastery in Ohio.
Our Lady of the Angels
While at Sancta Clara, Sister Angelica was inspired to create a religious community which would appeal to African Americans in the southern states, and began to seek support. In 1957, Archbishop Thomas Toolen suggested that she open this community in Birmingham. With a number of other Poor Clare nuns she worked to raise the necessary funds, partially from a small business venture making and selling fishing lures. In 1961, the nuns bought a building and land, and in 1962, the community was officially established. It was named Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and located in Irondale, Alabama, although it was later relocated to the grounds of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament
In 1999, Mother Angelica visited Colombia where she claimed to have a vision which told her to build a temple in honor of the Child Jesus. Private donors contributed $48.6 million and she opened the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville later the same year.
In 1962, Mother Angelica began a series of community discussion meetings on matters relevant to Catholicism, and also began recording her talks for sale. Bishop Joseph Vath noticed her talent for communicating with the lay public and encouraged her to continue; she began taping a radio show for broadcast on Sunday mornings and published her first book in 1972. In the late 1970s she began video-taping her talks for television, which were broadcast on the satellite Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1981, after visiting a Chicago television studio and being impressed by its capability, she formed the non-profit EWTN corporation. Initially, she recorded her shows in a converted garage at the monastery's property.
EWTN became a voice for American conservative and traditional Catholics, with its position on religious and social issues often mirroring that of Pope John Paul II. With the emphasis on tradition, Angelica had feuds with some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Most famous is the feud over a pastoral letter written by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles over teachings surrounding the Eucharist and the liturgy. After this dispute, EWTN added a theology department with priests, theologians, deacons, and lay people to make sure EWTN was in line with the teachings of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.
According to EWTN, the network's channels currently reach 264 million households globally.
On December 28, 1992, Mother Angelica launched a short wave radio channel, WEWN, which is broadcast by 215 stations.
Mother Angelica stepped down from control of EWTN in 2000 and handed control to a board of lay people. In 2001, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, she had one or several strokes. She was left with "slightly slurred speech, some unresponsive facial muscles and the need to wear an eye patch over one eye because she was unable to close the eyelid."
In response to the terrorist attacks, Mother Angelica made a statement expressing empathy for the victims, praising President Bush's speech to the U.S. Congress and calling for justice on the conspirators. She went on identifying "pornography, abortion, child prostitution, the spread of drugs, the destruction of youth by an immoral media and the suppression of religious expression in public places as 'other' terrorism that must be addressed." She condemned abortion saying it had "deprived the nation of millions of people who would otherwise be there to defend the nation."
On September 25, 2001, Mother Angelica returned to taping her show twice a week. On Christmas Eve, she suffered another stroke and underwent a thrombectomy to remove a blood clot; this resulted in improvement of her visual impairment which had required the use of an eye patch. The stroke caused partial paralysis of the right side of her body and affected her speech. She began speech therapy but stopped hosting television programs. As her health declined, her fellow nuns in Hanceville began providing Mother Angelica with constant care.
On October 4, 2009, Mother Angelica and Deacon Bill Steltemeier, then chairman of EWTN's board of governors, received the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice ("For the Church and the Pontiff") from Pope Benedict XVI for distinguished service to the Catholic Church. Because of her ill health, Mother Angelica received the award in her room. Bishop Robert J. Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham conferred the papal awards saying at a public ceremony that "Mother Angelica’s effort has been at the vanguard of the new evangelization and has had a great impact on our world."
In early December 2015, Mother Angelica was placed on a feeding tube. A representative for her order explained, "It's not that she's completely unable to eat. It's assisting her to get the nutrients she needs." He added that she had "some up and downs the last few months. She's a fighter." While she remained confined to bed, "She's able to communicate with a squeeze of a hand, make gestures with her eyes. She acknowledges people when they're there. The nuns say she does sleep a lot." The use of a feeding tube was in accord with her wishes since before the stroke of 2001 (which left her mostly unable to speak) she had left instructions for how she should be cared for with her fellow nuns; a reporter recalled her saying, "We don't understand the awesomeness of living even one more day... I told my sisters the other day, 'When I get really bad give me all the medicine I can take, all the tubes you can stuff down me. ...I want to live. ...Because I will have suffered one more day for the love of God... I will exercise you in virtue. But most of all I will know God better. You cannot measure the value of one new thought about God in your own life.'"
In early February 2016, Pope Francis, while en route to Cuba for a historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, recorded a message to be delivered to Mother Angelica which said, "To Mother Angelica with my blessing and I ask you to pray for me; I need it. God bless you Mother Angelica." Near the end of that month, her fellow nuns at Our Lady of Angels Monastery called for prayers on her behalf saying that "Mother's condition remains delicate and she receives devoted care day and night by her sisters and nurses. In God's Providence, she was able to receive the special Jubilee grace of passing through the Holy Door shortly after its opening. Although she is most often sleeping, from time to time Mother will give a radiant smile. ...Mother herself is regularly fortified by the sacraments. Please continue to keep her in your prayers; each day is a gift!"
Mother Angelica remained living at the monastery until her death on March 27, 2016 (Easter Sunday), at the age of 92 from complications of the stroke she had had 14 years prior. At the time, she "also suffered from Bell's palsy, heart disease and asthma."
Mother Angelica held the Catholic belief in Redemptive suffering — that human suffering can become meritorious if offered to Jesus and mystically united with His suffering. Because of this belief, in her period of declining health, Mother Angelica "instructed her nuns to do everything to keep her alive, no matter how much she suffered, because every day she suffered, she suffered for God." She wanted every day to be "one more act of suffering to God." EWTN chaplain, Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, MFVA told reporters that Mother Angelica's desire to unite with Jesus in suffering was fulfilled when she "went into her death throes on Good Friday".
Father Wolfe recalled that "Mother began to cry out early in the morning from the pain that she was having. She had a fracture in her bones because of the length of time she had been bedridden. They said you could hear it down the hallways, that she was crying out on Good Friday from what she was going through. These two people [a caregiver and one of the sisters of her order] said to me she has excruciating pain." Wolfe said that "After the 3 o'clock hour arrived on Good Friday she was more calm, she was more peaceful." He also said that by the following day he made a point of putting himself in a position where her open eyes might focus on him and thanked her for the witness of her faith and "teaching us how to love Jesus more". By 5:30 am on Easter Sunday, Wolfe was contacted by Mother Delores who told him that Mother Angelica "was really struggling, she wasn't doing very well." Wolfe went to her bedside to administer the Catholic last rites with the sisters of her order in attendance. The sisters prayed their morning prayers, the Divine Office, around her bed. As it was Easter, the prayer was liturgically required to contain Alleluias, which are usually not contained in the office for the dead — a fact that Wolfe felt had significance. Around 10:30 am, Father Paschal offered Mass in her room and she received her last communion (Viaticum). Priests and nuns continued to pray around her bed into the afternoon. She took her last breath shortly before 5:00 pm, and died.
Mother Angelica's death was announced by EWTN. In a statement on EWTN's Facebook page, Father Sean O. Sheridan, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville where Mother Angelica received an honorary doctorate of sacred theology, described her as "a true media giant. She proved that the Church belonged in the popular media alongside the news, sports, and talk shows. Though her stances were decidedly old-school — she was critical of religious and political progressives — her lectures were lightened with an often self-deprecating humor. She famously said the nuns she remembered from her youth were 'the meanest people on God’s earth.'"
In a ceremony on March 29, 2016, Mother Angelica's body was brought to the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery for private visitation by the Poor Clare nuns. Public visitation occurred at the upper church of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament on March 30–31. The Mass of Christian Burial burial at the shrine's upper church took place on April 1 with Archbishop of Philadelphia and EWTN board member Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. serving as principal celebrant and EWTN chaplain Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, MFVA as the homilist. Robert J. Baker and David E. Foley, the current and emeritus Bishops of Birmingham (where both EWTN and Our Lady of the Angels Monastery are located) respectively, concelebrated the mass along with Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile (whose ecclesiastical province includes the Diocese of Birmingham), Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. In addition, many priests, deacons, religious, and seminarians were in attendance. This was followed by the Rite of Committal at the shrine's crypt chapel. All the funeral rites were televised on EWTN.