How Mother Angelica Saved the Register
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception Had Significance for Nearly 90-Year-Old Newspaper
Since the Easter Sunday death of Mother Mary Angelica, founder of EWTN Global Catholic Television Network, many who work in the Catholic media have reflected: “Where would we be without her?”
Without Mother Angelica, there would be no National Catholic Register, according to Daniel Burke, the Register’s executive director.
Although she was paralyzed and unable to speak in late 2010 and early 2011, when the Register became part of EWTN, Burke explained in an interview that it was her far-reaching mission to serve the Church through the media that ultimately saved the paper.
The Register was started on Nov. 8, 1927, in the Archdiocese of Denver, by Msgr. Matthew Smith. It grew to 35 diocesan editions, with a national circulation of more than 700,000. In 1970, California businessman Patrick Frawley and his wife, Gerardine, bought the declining newspaper and moved it to Los Angeles. For the next 25 years, the Register attracted a generation of talented young writers who grew to international influence. By 1995, however, it was struggling.
At that time, the Legion of Christ, a religious order of priests and seminarians, acquired the Register and moved it to Connecticut. But 13 years later, the odds against it seemed insurmountable. A downturn in the economy and rising publishing costs were crippling enough, but the resulting scandal from revelations that the congregation’s founder was living a double life dealt a fatal blow. Financial donations abruptly dried up.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Burke asked himself in 2008, shortly after accepting the position as executive director of Circle Media, which included the Register, Faith & Family magazine and Circle Press book publishing.
During his first year, Burke shut down the book publishing, and the following year, the magazine was sold to give it a chance at new life elsewhere. Then he focused the efforts of the team on saving the paper.
“I saw the Register as an institution that served the Church with dignity and distinction,” he said. “It was beautiful both physically and in respect to its deep commitment to a redemptive perspective on faithful Catholic journalism.”
The Register went from a weekly to a biweekly edition, and the Register team found other ways to dramatically reduce expenses. Although the internal debt was paid off by November 2010, there was still a seemingly insurmountable gap between income and expenses.
“The Legion just could not make it work,” Burke said. “I realized there was no human way out.” Not even working 24 hours a day could make a difference, according to him, so instead of working more, he spent more time in prayer and adoration. “All we could do was to be faithful, moment by moment, and trust that God would provide answers when they were needed,” he said. “It’s amazing that even in the midst of all that difficulty, they [Register staff] were still telling the truth and doing it well.”
Tom Wehner, managing editor of the Register, came to work for the Register as a copy editor in 2005, after 25 years with a large metropolitan newspaper. When Wehner called longtime correspondents to tell them they might want to find other venues for their work because money was running dry, writer after writer essentially told him: “Pay when you can, but I’m not going to abandon the Register.”
Wehner said it would have been imprudent not to update résumés, yet not one of the dozen employees from the editorial staff or advertising department left during those tenuous times.
Unbeknownst to Burke, behind the scenes, a key freelancer decided to do something about the newspaper’s plight. Joan Frawley Desmond, the daughter of earlier owners Patrick and Gerardine, had re-connected with the paper after moving to the Washington area in 2003. Back in the 1980s, Desmond had been a New York-based reporter for the Register before moving with her family to Asia in 1988.
As the Legion’s problems became more evident, Desmond realized a new owner was needed. One of the supporters of the Register she reached out to was Francis Maier, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, who worked as the Register’s editor between 1979 and 1993.
“Fran agreed to look into the situation and soon concluded that the Register needed help quickly,” said Desmond, now the Register’s senior editor. “Throughout the process, I felt my mother’s guidance and prayers directing a successful outcome.” (Gerardine, who died in 2001, had been the paper’s publisher for many years.)
Maier worked for Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who served on the board of governors for EWTN. Burke received a letter in late November 2010 from the archbishop, asking if the Legion was interested in selling because there was a potential buyer. The day after receiving the letter, Burke met with Maier to discuss possibilities and soon learned that EWTN was the interested party.
Weeks earlier, the Legion had determined they could no longer sustain the Register and had given Burke permission to seek a buyer. The leadership team had scheduled a meeting for Dec. 8, 2010, to inform the staff that the Register would be shuttered on Dec. 31.
“If EWTN was going to acquire it, things had to move very quickly,” Burke said. “If we did not keep the paper operational, it would be a mess to clean up.”
EWTN quickly assembled a team to evaluate the Register. On Dec. 8 — the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception — instead of meeting with his staff to break the news of the Register’s closing, Burke flew out to Irondale, Ala., to meet Michael Warsaw, EWTN’s president and CEO, to determine the terms if Mother Angelica’s media marvel chose to move forward with the acquisition. In the meantime, Burke worked with a donor who made a commitment to cover payroll for the entire month of January 2011 in order to have time to complete the sale.
On the plane ride to meet with Warsaw, Burke read Raymond Arroyo’s book Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles. “At that point, I had a deep and humbling awareness that we were a part of the story,” he said. “Our missions were the same.”
During the meeting, Warsaw confirmed that EWTN was interested in acquiring the Register, on the condition that no cash would be exchanged. Would the Legion agree to those terms? Burke was uncertain. A meeting with Legion leadership was quickly arranged the next morning at their headquarters in Atlanta.
At the meeting, there was some disagreement, according to Burke, until Legionary Father John Bartunek, the priest responsible for the Register, stated: “We need to do whatever is best for the Church.” Father John Connor, then the Legion’s territorial director, echoed Father Bartunek’s sentiments. That ended the debate, for the most part: EWTN would become the new owner of the National Catholic Register.
Later that day, a rescheduled staff meeting took place via teleconference. The air was tense in the conference room in Thornwood, N.Y. (the Register’s temporary office, as the Connecticut office was closed two months previous). Burke explained that the Register had been scheduled to fold on Dec. 31. When he announced that, instead, EWTN was taking over, months of uncertainty exploded into elation.
“We went from learning we were going to close our doors to being acquired by one of the most stable and influential Catholic organizations in the world,” said Wehner. “It was incredible; it was a deliverance!” Tears of joy flowed. “Most of the tears were from Dan, and it was contagious,” Wehner said. “It was a pretty amazing moment.”
On Feb. 1, 2011, EWTN took control of the Register.
Burke moved his wife and children to Alabama to be on site. The rest of the staff is now mostly virtual, working from across North America and in Rome. Since then, print subscriptions to the Register have risen by 74%, and digital readership has experienced exponential growth.
In a story announcing the acquisition, Warsaw expressed great respect for the Register.
“Being sure that the Church’s voice is heard clearly and accurately has always been the core of EWTN’s mission,” he said. “Continuing the tradition of the Register gives us another means to carry out our mission of service to the Church.”
Shortly after the Register joined the EWTN family, one of the nuns from Mother Angelica’s monastery told Warsaw, “Mother Angelica had always wanted a newspaper.” Another part of her grand vision was now being fulfilled.
“There are more miracles to this story than we have the space to recount. Suffice it to say that Mother Angelica’s ‘Yes’ is the reason the Register is still serving the Church,” said Burke. “With EWTN and her legacy, we are united in our mission to shed light on the events of the day through the lens of the magisterium and to serve Catholics in their desire to think with the Church.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.