Remembering the Polish Roots of EWTN
The story began in the Polish city of Lviv and spread to to Vienna, Cleveland and ultimately Irondale, Alabama.
“God wants you there,” said Msgr. George Habig said one day to Rita Rizzo, as recounted in Raymond Arroyo’s biography Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. “That place was a contemplative monastery. I didn't have the faintest idea what that meant,” Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation said later.
The Shrine of St. Paul, a contemplative monastery, was located in Cleveland. It belonged to the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, part of a family of Franciscan cloistered nuns. What distinguishes them to this day is their constant adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in a spirit of thanksgiving.
What was Rita's first encounter with the order like? Arroyo describes it:
“Amiable Sister Magdalene led the girl into the dark interrogation room. The pregnant silence and the thick metal bars unsettled Rita. She spoke up, hoping that someone on the other side would respond. The door in the grille moved. On the other side, silent as phantoms, stood two nuns in dark brown habits with their faces covered by black veils. Rita stared at the mysterious figures. She had never been inside a convent before, nor had she ever met nuns like these. The nuns lifted their veils slightly, introducing themselves in a semi-loud voice, with an audible German accent. They were the Reverend Mother Mary Agnes, vicar of the convent, and Mother Mary Clare, vicar."
Who were the mysterious nuns? What community did the young Rita join? And finally, what is the connection between all this and Poland?
Origins in Lviv
The origins of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration date back to 1854 France. In that year, Capuchin Father Bonaventure Heurlaut, together with Mother Mary of St. Clare Bouilleveaux, founded the Order of Franciscan Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The cloistered order aimed to combine St. Clare's ideal of poverty with perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in a spirit of thanksgiving.
This is where the Polish part of the story begins, as the person that brought about the spread of the order to other countries, especially to Poland, was a polish nun — Mother Mary of the Cross, Ludwika Nałęcz-Morawska. She joined the Franciscan nuns in 1866 and just five years later left Troyes later to establish a foundation in Poland, which was then under partition. The young nun wanted to establish a convent with perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, especially since the person urging her to do so was Blessed Pope Pius IX, who said during a sermon, “Through the Blessed Sacrament Poland will be saved.”
After several attempts, among others in the Prussian partition, the nuns managed to settle in Lviv in 1873. Twelve years later, the founder of the Polish new branch of the order would found a new monastery at 43 Kurkowa St., along with a church dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. According to Reverend Mother Mother Mary of the Cross, it was intended to be “a constant petition for Divine Mercy for the Church and the Poles.”
As it soon turned out, the monastery also became the missionary headquarters of the young, dynamic congregation. An important aspect of the activity of the Lviv Franciscans was the spread of Eucharistic adoration. It was expressed through the formation of new congregations and was derived from the personal dynamism of Mother Morawska who “when it came to the things of God, did not like to procrastinate."
The Austrian capital, Vienna, was among the places where they succeeded. Eventually, a new monastery was founded there in 1898. The new monastery was connected to the monastery in Lviv not only through persons, the nuns, who came there from Poland, but also spiritually through the “Act of Spiritual Unification,” in which “the knot of mutual love and the seal of commitment was to be ardent and faithful love for the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and zeal in adoration of the Eucharist.”
This distinctive charism of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration endured for decades to come. Already after Mother Morawska's death, other convents emerged from the monastery in Vienna and expanded in, among others, one being Cleveland in the United States.
As a chronicle from 1938 describes it, “the Viennese community, in consultation with the mother monastery in Lviv, decided that Mother Maria Agnes Eichler, a person of tremendous energy, was capable of undertaking this difficult mission.” And so she did.
It was in Cleveland, a dozen years later, when the young Rita Rizzo knocked on the convent's door, and the gates to the cloistered family were opened to her by Mother Maria Agnes. And in 1962, Mother Angelica, following the steps of the founder of the Polish branch of the order, opened the Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Irondale, Alabama. Nearly 20 years later, she founded what has become the largest Catholic television station in the world.
God”s ways are unfathomable. It began in the Polish city of Lviv and reached Irondale, Alabama, via Vienna and Cleveland.
Back to the Roots
However, this is not the end of Mother Angelica's connections to Poland. After World War II and the shifting of the borders of Poland, the convent in Lviv was evacuated to Lower Silesia and the sisters came first to Klodzko, and then, due to the large number of Poor Clares some of the sisters moved to Ząbkowice Slaskie.
Regardless, several decades later, EWTN Poland was established in the capital of Lower Silesia as a branch of the EWTN, and its main service was and is a live broadcast from the Chapel of Perpetual Adoration in Niepokalanów, which is attended online by hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world.
Krzysztof Kunert, Ph.D., is the program director of the Polish branch of EWTN, EWTN Polska.