note: This article appears in the July-August issue of the Crisis
Alabama, is in the heart of the Bible Belt, in a state with a population
that is less than 3 percent Catholic. Turn onto Old Country Road in
this northern Alabama town, and you'll likely see more than a few
Southern Baptist churches as you drive along. But soon the religious
landscape changes: For a mile or so, just about every house displays
a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard. Or a sign indicating
that the dwelling is named after a saint and is a guest house for
visiting pilgrims. Or a "For Sale" placard naming an astronomical
price for the privilege of residing in an area that lives and breathes
drive along a seemingly endless white fence framing fertile, farmable
land, and you see what looks incongruously like a 13th-century abbey,
surmounted by an enormous Italian Romanesque church. Its name: the
Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, housing the Poor Clare Nuns of
Perpetual Adoration, members of a 147-year-old order of cloistered
Franciscan sisters in traditional garb. The church has its own name:
the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where the nuns spend their
days in the presence of the Eucharist, displayed in an eight-foot
You're in the
land of Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, P.C.P.A., the
78-year-old nun who brought the Poor Clares to Alabama as their
abbess (in 1962), built the Hanceville monastery (which opened in
1999), and helped turn this pocket of Alabama into a veritable Catholic
theme park. Mother Angelica is best known as the founder of the
Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) — with just under 300 employees,
an annual budget of about $29 million, and an audience of about
66 million households in 43 countries, the largest Catholic cable
network in the nation.
On August 15,
EWTN celebrates its 20th birthday — two decades of skyrocketing
growth since Mother Angelica started it in 1981 with just $200 as
a single television station operating out of the garage of her previous
monastery in Irondale, Alabama, a Birmingham suburb some 50 miles
from Hanceville. Irondale is still the home of EWTN's headquarters,
and although Mother Angelica retired as chairman of its board last
year, she still makes the drive there twice a week to tape her popular
Mother Angelica Live television show in front of a studio
idolize Mother Angelica as a media mogul of faith, an up-to-date
version of the video-savvy Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen of the 1950s
who did Sheen one better by building her own broadcasting empire.
They refer to her reverently as "Mother," and some have
moved to Hanceville just to be near her, as the front-yard statues
around the monastery indicate. Perhaps just as many other Catholics
can't stand her, finding her needlessly truculent and all too ready
to pick quarrels with those who strike her as less than orthodox
in their beliefs. Whatever the reactions, Mother Angelica may well
be, as Time magazine once described her, "the most influential
Roman Catholic woman in America."
thought it would be this big or this beautiful," says Mother
Angelica, a small woman who, as a cloistered nun, sits for her interview
with me behind a grating, as she does with all guests. She precedes
our talk with an apology for being late (by only five minutes) because
she has been teaching the other sisters a catechism class. She is
reflecting on the 20th anniversary of EWTN — a "miracle,"
as she calls it — but also on the shrine itself, another miracle.
"I think it is going to give people courage. They lack awe
— of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. And they lack
courage — they won't fight for anything. They have no guts. I think
what they experience when they walk into the church is courage.
That's why it was built."
is pure Mother Angelica, for whom reality is a heady mix of divine
intervention, practical problems, and obstacles to be overcome with
a mix of grit, considerable leadership skills, and faith in God.
Mother Angelica's own life, as she tells it, has been a series of
miraculous healings (she has suffered from a number of painful ailments),
heavenly visions (including a visit from St. Michael the Archangel,
who told her where to plant her EWTN short-wave signal), direct
communications from God, and direct confrontations with other Catholics
whose devotion may not be so intense or so tradition-minded as hers.
You either loathe Mother Angelica, or you believe in her all the
way; there's hardly any middle ground.
No Business Plan, No Budget
The same goes
for EWTN itself, a multimedia company that has no business plan,
no growth strategy, and no financing apparatus beyond the hope that
it will find $2.4 million a month to cover its expenses. Now a radio
ministry, a publishing company (turning out "mini-books"
written by Mother Angelica herself), and an Internet player as well
as a cable network, it's a company that is run on nothing more than
prayers — literally.
Knock on the
door of the small office in Irondale that houses the staff of EWTN's
website (widely respected as a
major resource of Catholic documents and lore), at the wrong time,
say, 3 p.m. on a weekday as I did, and you may not find anyone inside
right away. That's because the majority of the staff is probably
in the office's modest chapel praying the chaplet of divine mercy,
St. Faustina's prayer recited at the traditional hour of Christ's
death. Go at noon to the larger chapel in EWTN's nearby headquarters
building, and you'll find a huge contingent of EWTN's employees
at Mass (about 70 percent are Catholic; EWTN is not just for Catholics;
in a day when few channels provide family fare, EWTN is a haven
for "safe" programming), along with a daily contingent
of pilgrims. Even at 7 a.m., when EWTN airs a live daily Mass, you'll
see employees who have risen at dawn to attend. This is the real
itself the "global Catholic network," but it doesn't really
keep track of who is actually watching its programs among the more
than 60 million households it reaches. There's no such thing as
a Nielson rating at EWTN. Mother Angelica recalls the vice president
of another network asking her what EWTN's rating was. She responded
that she didn't care. The vice president was indignant: "You
don't care? That's our gospel!" To which Mother Angelica replied
crisply, "That's your problem."
such thing as a budget at EWTN either, and there never has been.
Mother Angelica explains: "We never had a committee. We never
had a parish to help us. We started with $200, and we went from
has a small accounting department to make sure the staff gets its
paychecks (salaries are sometimes sacrifices for new employees but
are generally about the industry standard), pay bills, and count
donations, but the chief financing strategy is, as with all things
at EWTN, prayer. Seriously. Says A. Scott Hults, communications
director, "Throughout its 20 years, we have looked to the providence
of God to provide for our needs, and He has. No more, and for the
most part, no less. If we need a piece of equipment and have the
money, we buy it. If a piece of equipment breaks, and we can't fix
it, if we have the money, we replace it. If we want to build something,
we build it as we can pay for it. Sometimes it takes longer, but
that's how we do it. We operate very close to break-even each month."
motto is: God will provide. She even brags that EWTN "has never
made money." The main fundraising method consists of her occasionally
saying at the end of her show, "Don't forget to put us between
your gas and electric bill. Bye now." That message also appears
on EWTN's website, where visitors are invited to contribute via
credit card. Although the network does have some wealthy donors
who have written it large checks, it does not do mass mailings or
formal solicitations like most nonprofits. To celebrate its 20th
anniversary, EWTN will be hosting — instead of a black-tie gala
for wealthy Catholics as potential contributors — a party only for
staff and their families. Even the network's anniversary merchandise
— shirts, mugs, and the like — aren't for sale to viewers and listeners
but for gifts to cable operators to thank them for carrying EWTN.
The money comes
in, Mother Angelica insists, because EWTN is "a work of God.
He has planned it, provided for it, graced it." She adds: "I
am always amazed that we have come this far, because when our dear
Lord started this thing, I would have never believed this. I thought
we'd just make some programs, really, because there were no Catholic
programs much of anywhere. And so as it evolved, I was always surprised.
It was not ever under my control. It was never a goal. I don't even
know what I thought. I didn't have a thought. I just always try
to listen to the Lord. A lot of things didn't make sense. But who
am I to question?"
Miracles in Ohio
If you look
at the history of EWTN, you might conclude that only divine providence
could account for the way a nun who admits that she knew nothing
about television, radio, publishing, or the Internet has managed
to establish an international presence in all these media. Without,
she claims, an ounce of forethought.
Born in 1923
in Canton, Ohio, Mother Angelica, then Rita Rizzo, had a troubled
childhood. Her father abandoned her and her mother, Mae Rizzo, when
she was an infant. Growing up poor in an era when divorce was still
taboo, she was subjected to ridicule by her classmates and teachers.
She still remembers the nuns who taught her in parochial school
as the meanest people on earth. Mother and daughter weren't even
regular Sunday Mass-goers, and young Rita had little formal education,
working at her mother's dry-cleaning shop from an early age. She
was not, suffice it to say, an ideal candidate for a religious vocation.
But at age
20, she was healed — miraculously, she says — of debilitating stomach
pain after making a novena to St. Thérèse of Lisieux
at the urging of a woman in her neighborhood believed to have the
stigmata, the wounds of Christ. Rita Rizzo's life changed instantly.
"Unquestionably, that was the day I found God and really began
to pray in an entirely new way," she recalls. "It was
the first time I really recognized God's active role in my life.
I fell in love with God." She began to pray constantly at a
nearby church, and she concluded that Jesus wanted her to become
was devastated when her only child and only friend went to Cleveland
to enter a Poor Clare convent in August 1944. But her attitude changed.
Mae Rizzo eventually joined the Poor Clares herself and was professed
as Sister Mary David in 1961. She joined her daughter's convent
and was present at EWTN's formal dedication in 1981 (Mother Angelica
still giggles mischievously when she remembers that her mother called
her "mother" as a sign of respect). Sister Mary David
died in 1982 at age 83, and her body rests in the crypt of the monastery
in Hanceville, where all the Alabama Poor Clares, including Mother
Angelica herself, will be buried.
ended up in Alabama because of another miracle, as she tells the
story. In 1946, at age 23, she was paralyzed in an accident with
a scrubbing machine while cleaning the floors of a Poor Clare convent
in Canton, where she was then living. Lying in a hospital bed, she
prayed to God and promised that if she ever walked again, she would
build Him a monastery in the South. (The choice of region seemed
purely arbitrary: "I have no idea why I said that," she
says.) Soon she was walking, but not without the aid of crutches
and a back brace. She would be dependent on both for the next half-century
and also in constant pain. She jokes that she quickly learned to
be more specific in her prayers. "I asked to walk," she
jokes, "I didn't ask to walk comfortably."
Visions in Alabama
She now had
a promise to keep but no money. With permission from their abbess,
she and others in her convent established St. Peter's Fishing Lures,
a mail-order business that generated cash for the move to the South.
She wrote letters to southern bishops, asking if they wanted her,
and Bishop Thomas Toolen of what was then the Mobile-Birmingham
diocese in Alabama wrote back first. In July 1961, she and a small
group of nuns moved to Irondale, where she set up the first Poor
Clare monastery in the state and became its abbess.
media life began in the 1970s when she started giving talks about
Catholicism, and her listeners started requesting copies of her
remarks. Her fellow nuns helped her write them down, print them,
and mail them out. Those were the famous Mother Angelica mini-books.
To this day, the collection is available free of charge from EWTN
to anyone who asks (as are rosaries). Her television career began
later in the decade when she taped a series of videos at a Birmingham
station for televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting
Network. When she learned in 1981 that the station intended to air
a movie denying Christ's resurrection, she took her show elsewhere
— to her monastery's garage.
Growth of the
new network was fairly rapid. In the beginning, carrying only a
few hours of programming a day, EWTN reached 60,000 homes. Over
the past 20 years that number has swelled more than a thousandfold.
With the exception of a few major U.S. cities — namely New York
and Los Angeles, where competition to be part of a basic cable package
is particularly cutthroat — EWTN is available just about everywhere
in America during some, if not all, hours of the day to anyone with
a television set and a cable subscription. Up until a month ago,
in North America, the only countries that didn't get EWTN on television
were Cuba, with its Communist government, and Canada, whose regulatory
structure discourages religious programming. Canadian bureaucrats
In 1993, EWTN
launched WEWN, a shortwave radio station, the world's largest privately
owned facility of its kind. The money came from the late Piet Derksen,
a Dutch leisure-industry billionaire who had never met Mother Angelica
until he spotted her in a hotel lobby in Rome. Ask her how she came
to start the shortwave operation, and she'll tell you it was the
archangel Michael — literally. She saw him on a hilltop near Irondale,
and he told her to build it there. So she did, even though experts
told her it wasn't an ideal location.
In 1996, she
launched her radio ministry, supplying free AM/FM feed to Catholic
radio stations that now reach 234 million potential listeners across
the United States. "That was a watershed year for us,"
says EWTN vice president for marketing Christopher Wegemer. That
year EWTN also went global, with satellite feeds going out worldwide.
has been a key target, and EWTN now reaches an estimated 14 million
Hispanic television viewers. Walk into the radio station in Irondale
at the right time, and you might think that it is an exclusively
Spanish-language operation (EWTN's Web site is also in Spanish as
well as English). Via satellite and shortwave, EWTN and WEWN also
reach into Europe, the Pacific, and parts of Africa. And as Catholic
seminaries worldwide install satellite dishes, the number of people
connected to EWTN grows. Says Wegemer, "Mother Angelica says
knock on every door that we can. That has been our marketing tool.
And pray that the Lord will open the doors."
Running on Faith
The EWTN staff
is a cadre of broadcast professionals, some of whom left successful
careers in the secular world after feeling called to Irondale. They
seem to toe the company line happily and naturally. Divine providence
is boss in EWTN parlance. Company chairman Bill Steltemeier, whom
Mother Angelica tapped early on after spotting him during a talk
in 1978, says he can't look back. "The Lord did it. I don't
know how He did it, but He did it."
groups, Catholic and non-Catholic, have tried to build a media empire
like EWTN's. In fact, when EWTN started sending signals in 1981,
it entered a field that already had several established religious
cable networks. Of all of those, including the Christian Broadcasting
Network, EWTN is the only one remaining in full-time operation.
What is the
EWTN difference? The network's president, Michael Warsaw, says it's
that "EWTN is doing God's will." The lesson of EWTN "isn't
what we've done, it's how it was done," says Mother Angelica.
"We didn't have a plan. We didn't have proof it was going to
work. I know that is not the way a successful business would work.
If you are going to sell neckties, you have to know that people
want neckties. But you can't work for God that way because you don't
know what He wants to sell. There is no guarantee of success. There's
only a guarantee of pleasing God for doing His will."
Those who work
for EWTN say they have seen it work miracles. Staff members report
that relatives have returned to the Church after tuning in to Mother
Angelica Live or The Journey Home, a call-in show hosted
by Marcus Grodi, a convert who interviews other converts about their
discovery of Catholicism. Letters, phone calls, and e-mails to EWTN's
radio, television, and Web staff tell similar stories. Some people
have written to say they were on the verge of suicide when they
saw an EWTN program that convinced them not to do it. Says Thom
Price, director of programming for the shortwave operation, "If
you turn on most radio stations today, truth is subjective. That's
not the case with EWTN."
Mother Angelica has a sizable number of detractors, who regard her
as the Rush Limbaugh of the Catholic airwaves. When she criticized
a mimed stations of the cross featuring a woman playing Jesus and
viewed by Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993,
the liberal National Catholic Reporter took her to task.
In 1997, she
garnered the wrath of Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who
had issued a pastoral letter on the Eucharist, "Gather Faithfully
Together." Mother Angelica read the letter, which described
the consecration in the Mass as a representation of the Last Supper,
and said she was "shocked" — on the air. She told her
viewers that they could legitimately disobey Cardinal Mahony's letter
because it displayed what she deemed an incomplete, and thus heretical,
interpretation of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. The cardinal,
predictably, was not amused and demanded a retraction. She made
a grudging apology on the air that Cardinal Mahony deemed unsatisfactory.
He later attempted to have her reprimanded by the Vatican without
Not long after
the Mahony contretemps, in January 1998, Mother Angelica threw away
the crutches that she had used since her 1946 accident, after praying
the rosary in her office with a woman from Italy. Her pain had vanished,
and she stood up and walked unaided to appear on an EWTN program,
Life on the Rock, aimed at younger Catholics. EWTN staffers
literally danced for joy at the latest miracle. But an article in
Commonweal magazine noted acerbically: "Mother's timing was
nothing if not opportune. Surely, for those with eyes to see (especially
in Rome and weasely American chanceries), heaven was signaling its
interests in the Poor Clare network executive's contretemps with
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles."
also tangled briefly with Birmingham's current bishop, David E.
Foley. In 1999, Bishop Foley decreed that all priests in his diocese
were to face the congregation when saying Mass. That ended the custom
at EWTN of having the priests who celebrated televised liturgies
or said Mass in its chapels face away from the people in attendance
— the norm before the Second Vatican Council but a rare practice
nowadays. Critics had complained that EWTN was trying to make a
political statement, using its priests' posture at Mass to cast
aspersions on lax post-Vatican II rituals elsewhere. Mother Angelica
promptly complied with Bishop Foley's order, however, and he presided
over the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament shrine at her new
monastery in Hanceville later that year.
EWTN's biggest problem isn't criticism but space. It still has only
one studio, where it produces the majority of its television programming,
and backdrops change from hour to hour. And the network can't build
enough new structures to keep up with its burgeoning operations.
"In my 16 years here, there has always been some kind of construction
going on," says Rev. Joseph Mary Wolfe, who came to EWTN in
1985 as an engineer. In 1993, he was ordained as the first priest
in the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, a new order
founded by Mother Angelica to further Catholic communications. The
order has a friary on the EWTN grounds and also a seminary, accredited
by the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.
built her monastery in Hanceville because her cloistered Poor Clares,
who also lived until recently on the crowded EWTN campus, needed
more solitude for contemplation. As is so often the case with Mother
Angelica, divine intervention played a key role in the move. In
1995, she says, Jesus told her to "build Me a temple where
you will live, and I will help those who help you." Four families
who wanted to remain anonymous soon donated the money to pay for
the land, the monastery, and the shrine. (The monastery and shrine
remain financially independent from EWTN.) Some 32 nuns now reside
at the monastery in Hanceville with Mother Angelica: "There
is no dearth of vocations," she laughs. A few externs — nuns
who live outside the monastery — add to their number and make up
what Mother Angelica considers the perfect-size religious congregation.
One tries to
be skeptical about EWTN but instead walks away in wonder. Raymond
Arroyo, the network's news director, who wound up at EWTN after
interviewing Mother Angelica for a 1996 article, says: "We
get letters and e-mails from the Philippines, Malta, Puerto Rico,
Africa, Lebanon, Britain, and Australia when we broadcast the Holy
Father — now that is the universal Church in action. Mother's vision
and technology have allowed us for the first time in history to
reach the entire Church with the pope's teachings. We have five
separate signals going out of here 24 hours a day — each programmed
independently. Who would have thought a nun from Canton, Ohio, could
do that? But she'll tell you it was the Holy Spirit. And after seeing
it up close, I believe her."
As for Mother
Angelica, she doesn't take herself — or the role she played in building,
managing, and nurturing EWTN for the last 20 years — too seriously.
After all, as she constantly points out, it was God, not she who
did the work. She laughs again: "I think if you are ignorant
enough, the Lord helps you out or you wind up in jail."