First came the miracle. Then, 70 years ago Aug. 15, she laid the foundation for all that would follow.
While millions of people glory in EWTN, the international broadcast empire Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation built — the one that has brought hope and healing to those inside and outside of the Catholic Church for more than 30 years — few appreciate that it all stands on a decision made by Mother Angelica when she was 21 years of age.
Among the many impressive traits of Mother Mary Angelica, her willingness to embrace risk and even suffer in her pursuit of God’s will has always stood out.
Seventy years ago this month, Rita Rizzo, a vivacious, wounded girl from a broken home, took a step that would change the course of Church history and alter the direction of millions of lives. She got there by fearlessly following the inspiration of the present moment.
In 1943, a desperate Rita visited a local mystic, Rhoda Wise, in search of a cure for a painful stomach ailment that made it difficult for the girl to eat. The mystic advised the young woman to pray a novena for healing.
As I recounted in my biography of her, Mother Angelica The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles, exactly nine days later, the pain dissolved, and Rita could suddenly eat anything she desired. Rita was certain she had experienced a miracle: “When the Lord came in and healed me … I had a whole different attitude. I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.”
Rita soon began spending time near the mystic who had reignited her faith, a woman who reportedly conversed with Jesus during painful ecstasies. In short order, Rita felt the call to religious life and surreptitiously began visiting convents. Eventually, she would enter a cloistered Poor Clares community in Cleveland, on Aug. 15, 1944. Fearful of a showdown with her paranoid and emotionally fragile mother, Rita quietly boarded a bus bound for Cleveland, informing her mother of her whereabouts by letter.
“I thought, ‘Well, Lord, this is where you want me; this is where I’m going,’” Mother later said.
That trusting acceptance of her calling and the decisive action that followed would become hallmarks of Mother’s long religious life.
She didn’t know exactly where God was leading her that summer of 1944. But she went just the same. In the years that followed, whether it was the call to start a monastery to bring racial healing to the Deep South, the call to establish the first Catholic cable network in a Birmingham, Ala., suburb or the prompting to build a shortwave radio network, she zealously dove into each inspiration with everything she had.
A few years after arriving in Birmingham, Mother Angelica welcomed a young vocation to the cloister. Jo Ann Magro, a local girl of Italian stock, would become Angelica’s “first daughter.” Curiously, she was born the same year Mother entered religious life.
Known today as Sister Mary Regina, she too celebrates a milestone this year: 50 years of religious life beside Mother Angelica. For these five decades, she has obediently pursued Mother’s example, tending the gardens of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Ala., offering daily prayer to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and, more recently, caring for the woman she has long called “Mother.”
Surrounded by her sisters, at 91 years of age, Mother Angelica continues to live out her religious vocation in a silence more pronounced than she might have imagined all those decades ago.
Back in 1945, after one of her visions, Rhoda Wise, the mystic of Canton, Ohio, sent a message to the newly veiled Sister Angelica. “Tell Rita,” she wrote, “every little worry will be erased from her heart. For each insult, each heartache, more stars.”
Considering the heartache Mother Angelica has endured throughout these pain-inflicted 70 years of religious life, it must be consoling for her to see the copious “stars” on all sides.
Mother’s outsized projects, her nuns and the lives of the many laity she has touched over the years still burn brightly.
And in a hushed solitude, so does she.
Raymond Arroyo is author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel
Kerman Derman and the Relic of Perilous Falls,
a New York Times bestselling author,
Mother Angelica’s biographer
and host and creator of
EWTN’s The World Over Live.