There probably would not have been a Mother Angelica without a Rhoda Wise. It’s a radical statement that Mother Angelica’s biographer, Raymond Arroyo, EWTN’s The World Over news anchor, surmises based on the dramatic transformation following her encounter as a teenager with Rhoda Wise.
“Rhoda is the person who initiated Mother Angelica in her faith,” Arroyo said. “Mother talked a lot about her to me. They were friends.”
According to Arroyo, Rhoda is a “key part” to the Mother Angelica story. “I would argue that she was Mother Angelica’s spiritual director and shaped her approach to spirituality,” he told the Register.
These two women from working-class neighborhoods in Canton, Ohio, both had hard-luck lives, but would come to impact the world.
Rhoda, a stigmatist, mystic and miracle worker, died from hypertension at age 60 July 7, 1948. Her funeral Mass overflowed with 14,000 people. The Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, formerly opened her cause of beatification and canonization Oct. 7, 2016, putting her on the path to sainthood.
Now, the formal diocesan investigation for the cause of beatification and canonization of Servant of God Rhoda Wise will close this Friday, July 6, according to the Diocese of Youngstown. The “Acts of the Case” will be present and sealed for transport to Rome at a 10am Mass to be held at St. Peter’s in Canton, Ohio, July 7, the 70th anniversary of her death. The main celebrant will be Msgr. Robert Siffrin, vicar general of the diocese. The celebration will continue with a Eucharistic Holy Hour, recitation of the Rosary and the opportunity for confession after Mass. The Rhoda Wise House and Grotto will open to the public at 1:00pm that day (see RhodaWise.com for more information).
When Mother Angelica died at age 92 on Easter Sunday 2016, she was the only woman in the history of broadcast television who had founded and directed a cable network as chief executive for 20 years. EWTN has become the largest religious media organization on Earth.
Both Mother Angelica and Rhoda Wise continue to have an impact on local Catholics and beyond.
A Life of Trials and Graces
In the book Her Name Means Rose: The Rhoda Wise Story, author Karen Sigler, who is also director of the Rhoda Wise House in Youngstown, recounted Wise’s difficult life that culminated in being sent home to die. Surgery to remove a huge ovarian cyst led to severe infections and other surgeries. A twisted ankle also required surgery, and more infections followed. In the end, with an abdomen that could no longer be sutured closed, a cast on her foot and the discovery of cancer, Wise was sent home to her three-room clapboard shack. There was nothing more doctors could do for her.
Rhoda got little sleep, but she prayed the Rosary and sought the intercession of St. Thérèse, the Little Flower. It was in her bedroom that Jesus began appearing, sometimes bringing St. Thérèse. Miracles followed, beginning with the complete healing of her wounds. Later, she received the stigmata. Crowds witnessed a glow from her bedroom window on nights Jesus appeared.
In the meantime, Rita Rizzo (the future Mother Angelica), the only daughter of a neurotic, divorced mother, suffered from a condition in which her stomach dropped into the abdominal cavity, causing extreme pain and digestive disturbances. In January of 1943, 19-year-old Rita was brought by her mother to see Rhoda.
Rhoda gave Rita a novena to St. Thérèse to pray. On the ninth day, Rita woke up during the night with sharp pains. By morning, the pain and the bluish color around her waist and the bulging lump on her lower abdomen were completely gone.
A Bond Is Forged
Mother Angelica had explained to Arroyo that, after her healing, “I knew there was a God: I knew that God loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was to give myself to Jesus.”
“Rhoda was the first movement in Mother’s spiritual life,” Arroyo said. “She turned to Rhoda, the holiest person she knew, as her model. Being near someone like that is extraordinary. It was not a concept or an idea, but a living supernatural manifestation — something she could touch.”
From that time on, Rita spent a lot of time with Rhoda. “She would sit next to Rhoda as people came to visit her,” Arroyo explained. “People were lining up to see her as she was bleeding in her hands and feet.” When Rita felt called to become a nun, he said that Rhoda became a vocational resource for Rita, furnishing her with a list of communities and superiors to contact.
According to Sigler, Rhoda was present on Nov. 8, 1945, at the St. Paul Shrine in Cleveland when Rita was vested with the Poor Clares and took the name Sister Mary Angelica. Rhoda also was present in 1947 at Mother Angelica’s first profession at Sancta Clara Monastery in Canton.
Sigler said that Rhoda kept up on the whereabouts of Mother Angelica and perhaps was even updated by Jesus at one point.
“One of the visitors wrote a letter, which is now a part of the investigation, saying that, in July of 1945, while Rhoda was in ecstasy during the stigmata, she said: ‘Rita? My Rita?’”
The witness said that Rhoda explained later that she heard that Rita was going to do great things for the Church.
After Rhoda’s daughter’s death in 1995, the Rhoda Wise House was bequeathed to Mother Angelica and became the property of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. Mother Angelica was also given some of the stigmata cloths, rose petals from St. Thérèse and an oil painting that Wise had someone paint of Jesus as he had appeared to her. Mother Angelica hung the picture over her bed in the convent. (After her death, everything was returned and is now owned by Rhoda Wise Shrine, Inc., a private association of the Christian faithful.)
Arroyo ended Mother Angelica’s biography recounting a scene of the Poor Clare in her cell surrounded by her nuns while her gaze was transfixed outside her window: “Suddenly, startled, Mother tilts her face upward. Her glance travels above the bed to the painting that once hung in Rhoda Wise’s house; a crude mustard-colored portrait of the wounded Christ. Angelica’s eyes widen. She whispers, ‘Listen!’”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.