Perhaps best known as featured host on the Eternal Word Television Network she founded 20 years ago, the foundress and Abbess of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Ala., is an author and founder of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, WEWN radio, and EWTN Online. She spoke recently with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family.
I was an only child, born in Canton, Ohio. My parents divorced when I was 6 years old. That's when hell began. My mother and I were desperate—moving from place to place, poor, hungry, and barely surviving. My mother loved me dearly, but was overwhelmed by the circumstance of our lives and she became severely depressed.
By the time I was 11, I had grown up fast with the responsibility of taking care of both my mother and myself. I can't recall having any real childhood. There were no Christmas trees and no friends because of my parents’ divorce.
Was there a significant event that led to your vocation?
I remember that time as if it were yesterday. It was Friday, Jan. 8, 1943. I had been experiencing severe stomach pain due to an obstruction for four years and was physically at the end of my rope. The doctors were unable to provide any remedy or hope.
One day, my mother came home with news of a woman in Canton, Ohio, named Rhoda Wise who had been healed of terminal cancer and now bore the stigmata of Jesus. We went to see her and asked her to pray for me...hoping God would use her to help me.
I can't express the feelings that swept over me as I entered the room where Jesus appeared to Mrs. Wise. I can only say it was awesome. We were there a short while and she gave me a novena to St. Thérèse to recite.
At the end of praying this novena for nine days, something began to happen. I went to bed that night and woke up experiencing the worst stomach pain. But it was over in one brief moment. I got up that morning, Sunday, Jan. 17, when I suddenly realized there was no pain whatsoever in my stomach. I was healed.
Unquestionably, that was the day I became aware of God's love for me and began to thirst for him. My life was changed. On Aug. 15, 1944, I entered the Adoration Monastery in Cleveland, Ohio.
What led to the construction of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale in 1961?
In 1946, I was chosen as one of the Founding Sisters of a new Monastery in my hometown of Canton, Ohio. One day in the 1950s, my work assignment was to scrub the floors in the monastery.
Unlike St. Thérèse, I used an electric scrubbing machine. In an instant, the machine went out of control. I lost my footing on the soapy floor and was thrown against the wall, back first. Two years after the accident, being barely able to perform my activities, I was hospitalized. On the night before surgery, the doctor walked into my hospital room and stated, “Tomorrow we operate. You should know there is a 50/50 chance you will never walk again. Good night, Sister.”
And with that, he coldly walked out.
I was panic-stricken and made a bargain with God. I promised if he would allow me to walk again that I would build him a monastery in the South. God kept his end, and through divine providence, so did I.
Why Irondale, Ala.?
Well, when I presented the building plans for the new monastery to Mother Veronica, my Abbess at Sancta Clara in Canton, Ohio, she told me that another nun in the monastery also expressed interest in building a monastery.
Mother Veronica was as wise as Solomon; she had both of us mail letters of intent to two bishops on the same day and whoever received the first positive response would proceed. On the third day a letter came, addressed to me, saying, “Y'all come.” It was from Archbishop Thomas Toolen, Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham.
The Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration are a cloistered order devoted to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Tell me how EWTN and WEWN were an outgrowth of the monastery?
Everything was done in obedience to Our Lord. If he gave us an inspiration, we said, “fiat” [let it be done] and plunged in—without full knowledge of what we were doing or where to begin. And the witness of all this is that it has been accomplished through divine providence.
I taught a scripture class to a group of lay people every week for four years. They encouraged me to make audiotapes of the classes, and then put the tapes into booklet form. The first booklet was on prayer, entitled, “Journey Into Prayer.”
With the Lord's inspiration, I wrote 56 books and mini-books. We distributed over 15 million of these books all over the world.
Then I began receiving invitations for speaking engagements, which our bishop gave me permission to accept. A TV station in Chicago asked me for an interview. When I saw that tiny TV studio, I realized how easy it would be to reach the masses. So I said to the Lord, “Lord, I gotta have one of these!”
Then a Christian cable network asked me to send them a series for television which I taped at a local Birmingham TV station. When I found out that the station was going to broadcast a blasphemous movie, I confronted the station manager and objected.
He ignored my complaint, so I told him I would go elsewhere to make my tapes. He replied, “You can't do that! You leave this station and you're off television.” To which I replied, “I don't need you, I only need God! I'll build my own!” and stormed out of his office.
That's when we turned our plan for a garage into a television studio. EWTN went on air Aug. 15, 1981, and will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Today there are 33 nuns here and 16 friars in Birmingham.
Do you have a favorite story of how EWTN has touched the life of a viewer?
But perhaps, the real question is, “Do I have a favorite story of how EWTN has touched me?” It was during the early years of Mother Angelica Live, and my guest and I were talking about alcoholism.
It was time to take phone calls from our viewers, when this little voice came over the speaker and said, “I want to talk to the man about being an alcoholic.” At first I thought the call was a joke, but soon realized the young caller was very serious.
She was a latchkey child about 14 years old. Her parents worked until late, so she was home alone every night and had begun to drink.
My guest happened to be from the same city and he arranged for her to get professional counseling. I know for the EWTN staff and myself, that this was a turning point.
We knew we were reaching an audience, both in age and needs, that were more than we had ever imagined.
Tim Drake welcomes e-mail at email@example.com.