A Mother Who Keeps Her Promises


by Raymond Arroyo

Doubleday, 2005

400 pages, $23.95

Available in bookstores

Few are indifferent about Mother Angelica, the steel-nerved nun who, 25 years ago, established the Eternal Word Television Network, the world's largest religious media empire that today reaches more than 100 million viewers.

Some use superlatives that would embarrass any nun. Others mumble, “She's a saint, but hard to take.” “Progressive” Catholics say Mother Angelica ignored Vatican II; “traditional” ones insist she's saving the Church. Time magazine called her “the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.” Lee Iacocca considers her “the patron saint of CEOs.”

In a 1994 cover story, the National Catholic Reporter reviled her, saying “anyone who watches EWTN will have to conclude that Catholicism is a Disneyland of pseudo-miracles, with a piety that exalts Mary over Jesus, more determined to squelch the Spirit than allow him or her to speak.”

The truth may lie in Raymond Arroyo's fascinating biography. A former Associated Press reporter, Arroyo's writing credits include National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Of course, he is also news director and lead anchor for EWTNews, a connection that might suggest bias. Rather, it afforded him access to the nun's mind that other biographers could only have wished for. He had her ear. He became privy to her greatest joys and most surprising secrets. In these pages, he presents both.

Describing Rita Rizzo's childhood, Arroyo describes how, abandoned by her father and reared by a possessive, depressed mother, she became her own “parent.” Through it all, her faith developed. Arroyo explores her physical suffering as a young woman and her healing by the prayers of a local mystic, an event that prompted Rizzo to dedicate her life to God.

In 1944, she entered Adoration Monastery in Cleveland. Arroyo shows how her survival skills and powerful personality caused problems with the Poor Clares — and how these qualities soon thrust her into a world beyond the cloister.

Beginning with an addition to the monastery, her interest in construction led to numerous projects, eventually producing the magnificent $50 million Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Alabama.

Arroyo weaves into a rich tapestry the swatches of Angelica's extraordinary life: devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, elevation to abbess at age 37, conflicts inside and outside the Church, work in radio and as an author, surgeries and hospitalizations and, in 1978, the event that “would decisively change Mother Angelica's life forever” — her first visit to a TV station.

The nun “ogled the compact studio with something bordering on covetousness,” he writes. “‘Lord, I gotta have one of these,’ Angelica whispered in a private prayer. Then almost as soon as it was out, she hesitated, ‘What would 12 nuns do with this? I'm a cloistered nun, and I don't know anything about television.’”

But, moments later, when informed that $950,000 would buy a studio, Angelica replied, “Is that all? I want one of these.” How she got it and used it is an engrossing tale. It is amazing and inspiring to look back now on what she has accomplished.

Ann Applegarth writes from Roswell, New Mexico.