EWTN Chapel Raises Hearts to God

The interior and exterior renewal of the sacred space extends prayerful legacy of Mother Angelica and her ‘inspired’ architectural imagination.

Father Joseph Mary Wolfe chronicles the updates to Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at EWTN in Irondale, Alabama.
Father Joseph Mary Wolfe chronicles the updates to Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at EWTN in Irondale, Alabama. (photo: Father Joseph Mary Wolfe photos)

Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at Eternal Word Television Network in Irondale, Alabama, seats less than 100 people, yet millions can — and do — watch the daily Mass broadcast.

“The chapel is now 60 years old,” explained EWTN’s Father Joseph Mary Wolfe of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, “so it is fitting to renew the chapel inside and out since it has been the place where so many have received blessings and been strengthened in their faith — both locally and via the media throughout the world.”

People might have noticed recent changes, such as a different organ installed in 2021; the chapel’s worn carpeting will be replaced and refreshed in October, with new carpeting in the same deep red shade. On March 19, the new high-definition cameras gifted by a donor and installed in the chapel debuted on TV.

Also completed: the reshingling of the chapel’s very high, sweeping roof for the first time in 30 years.

“It was breathtaking when you would come down that driveway and see that magnificent roof structure,” Matt Scalici, one of EWTN’s first employees who worked for the network for 13 years, told the Register. “Basically, it looked like an old wooden ship turned upside down.” 

Scalici added, “Inside, it was more beautiful. You were surrounded with the curved ceiling with all the decorations. There was a lot of mystery; to me, it was not like any other church I had been to.” His family moved to Old Leeds Rd. near the monastery when he was in fourth grade, but he had known Mother Angelica since he was 3 years old.

Back in 1958, while still in Canton, Ohio, Mother Angelica had a vision of what the monastery was to be, Father Joseph explained. Her chapel was to be shaped like an ark. She drew out the plans on a piece of graph paper and then the nuns made a cardboard model that they presented to Archbishop Thomas Toolen in Alabama. He approved.

When Mother Angelica came to Birmingham, Scalici recalled how the area’s strong Italian community supported her and wanted to help her build the monastery and its chapel.

As building began July 24, 1961, Sam Gagliano just graduated high school. He became a friend of Mother’s and the nuns from the beginning, and later of the friars, also. He remembers Mother asking a group that was welcoming her to get her a contractor. “It would be nice to have a Catholic contractor, preferably Italian,” he remembers her saying. “They knew of only one — Anthony Oddo,” who built houses in Birmingham. “He was called to a meeting and told by her, ‘You’re going to build a monastery.’ He said, ‘I build homes, not a commercial building.’ Mother told him, ‘I’ll pray, and you’ll figure it out.’”

Gagliano and his brother Carl joined the project as laborers. They would get the wood supplies and occasionally drive in nails. Things were not easy, he recalled. Mother “had a very unique design on the roof of this chapel. These home contractors had never built a roof line like that before. They had to try to figure out how they could make these upward beams bend up and rise up higher over the altar — kind of rising up to heaven, too.”

He said Mother found a company in one of the Scandinavian countries that “took the wood and her specifications from her drawings and bent that wood to make these upward beams.” The beams were shipped to Irondale without instructions on how to put them together.

Gagliano vividly remembered, “Johnny Cataldo, the lead carpenter, laid those trusses out and tried to figure out how he was going to mount them and support them because they had never done this before. So Mother and the nuns prayed, and they did get it up.”

He saw that pattern repeat continually throughout the project. Gagliano recalled seeing Mother drive up with some sisters, get out of the car, “and she was yelling at the top of her voice, ‘Tony, Tony, Tony!’ He said, ‘Here comes Mother Angelica, and she’s going to change something else. I haven’t even got the walls up.’ She was full of the Holy Spirit. She got really involved with the construction. And Tony would do whatever she wanted to do.”

Indeed, the chapel’s ceiling under today’s newly reshingled roof sweeps skyward, up over the center of the altar and tabernacle, imitating hands rising in prayer or the hull of an ark. The design presented the builders with yet another challenge. Because the ceiling curves, it could not be sheetrocked.

Again, lead carpenter Cataldo found a solution. “He was really a master craftsman. He could do anything,” Gagliano observed. The solution: using wood installed in tongue and groove method to “curve” with the ceiling.

Another renovation project scheduled for this fall is replacement of the deteriorated tinted glass behind the large etched “angels windows.” The new glass will also reduce the heat and air-conditioning load in the chapel. Scalici well remembers the originals.


Changes Over Years

“Originally, the windows which let the sunlight in on monastery side, had brown tinting and streaks, marbled almost as if someone had taken a paintbrush to the glass,” Scalici said. The chapel was “bathed with the light passing through the brown opaque windows.”

“All the glass on that massive glass wall at the back of the chapel” was the first thing he remembers being changed in the late 1980s. “Mother had someone design beautiful etched artwork with angels. Now, the chapel became much brighter, and the whole color of the chapel changed. It was quite magnificent.”

Also etched in his memory is the sisters’ singing when they resided in Irondale: “Right before Mass we would hear the sisters praying or singing,” recalling “the mystery of the church divided in half, and from behind the reredos came these angelic voices. We would see the monstrance exposed. It was a very solemn moment to genuflect on both our knees, seeing the Blessed Sacrament in that beautiful golden monstrance way up off the ground just before Mass. Imagine how impressionable it was as a young child to reverence the Blessed Sacrament and hear this music. It was magnificent.”

He “can picture it without trying” how the chapel looked back then. Originally, there was a cross with a three-dimensional corpus of Christ the King hanging from the tall ceiling with a light shining on it. “That cross was replaced by the San Damiano cross of St. Francis.”

Father Joseph said that original cross was given to the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word community for their convent in Birmingham.

Scalici remembers the origin tabernacle was “like a plain golden globe about the size of a basketball. What fascinated me about it was when the priest opened it, one half of the globe would spin around to reveal the inside of the tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament. I was fascinated with the mechanics of this perfectly round sphere.”

He also remembers the original monstrance that Father Joseph  described as “kind of a sunburst with the Blessed Sacrament in the middle and little golden rays leading away from it.” Today, it is still used at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. “I always use it when I have Benediction there, and the older nuns love to see it again,” Father Joseph said.

The current gold, jeweled monstrance at the EWTN chapel contains two adoring angels with golden wings acting as guardians on either side of the Blessed Sacrament. It was present when Mother and the nuns were still in Irondale.

Scalici pointed out how the depiction of the large kneeling and adoring angels on top of the curved reredos have always been there. “Everything matched this beautiful arched theme,” he emphasized. “This arch on the reredos and the [curved] wings continue the theme to point everyone to the monstrance or the crucifix in the back. Your eyes are always focused upward. What you saw was architectural imagination.” And it was all Mother Angelica’s design.

These renderings of angels as well as the very large angel supporting the altar with his wings were always silver and gold. Father Joseph said, “The last time they were renewed, a young man used gold leaf and aluminum leaf on them, which has stood the test of time.” The smaller angels on the sides of the reredos, formerly in the cloister side of the chapel, were moved to the public side a few years ago.

Scalici worked on something in the chapel himself. He well remembers how, in the early ’90s, after “several years in working for Mother, we decided we wanted to televise daily Mass. I proposed that we automate it.” The small space between the pews and walls allowed no place for cameramen, however, so automated cameras were the answer. “Mother agreed. She felt the world needed the opportunity to see daily Mass.”

As for the organ, EWTN choir director and organist Derek Paul Kluz said the “new” donated organ, a Viscount four manual with 82 ranks, has a beautiful solid oak case, tall enough to be relocated in the chapel so Kluz “could see the choir over the top of it.” The “old” Allen Protégé organ from the ’90s, which “served us very well for over three decades,” was donated to St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in neighboring Leeds.


Years of Spiritual Highlights

“This chapel holds such meaning for me — to have the privilege of a five-minute-or-less walk into that chapel and be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to ask for guidance, or patience, or whatever the need of the day,” Scalici said. “That chapel and I are very connected. … That became a regular part of my life.” He speaks for countless viewers, too, who rely on the daily Mass in the beautiful chapel.

After he got married, Scalici poignantly described how all three times he and wife, Ginger, would come home from the hospital with their babies, and, first, “we would stop at the monastery and bring our newborn into the chapel. My wife handed the babies over to Mother, and she would raise them up to the Blessed Sacrament and place them on the altar and pray over my children and over our marriage.” Their “first-stop” pilgrimages to the chapel began the day they were married.

In this holy place, “EWTN employees and local friends continue adoration in the chapel 365 days a year,” explained Father Joseph. “This is the heart of everything that happens at EWTN and around which everything revolves.”

As Scalici emphasized, “Whenever my life has presented me with challenges, I always found my way back to Our Lady of the Angels Chapel. Although it has changed a little, it still has the same solemn qualities. I feel the presence of God. I’ve never been in a place where God was adored more than in that chapel.”