‘She Loved Jesus So Much’: Remembering Mother Angelica on Her 100th Birthday
Friends and colleagues share memories of EWTN’s foundress.
IRONDALE, Ala. — April 20 marks the centenary of Mother Mary Angelica’s birth. On that day 100 years ago, Rita Rizzo, who would eventually become a nun who would touch the lives of tens of millions of people around the world by founding the world’s largest Catholic media network, was born.
Mother Angelica, who launched EWTN in a garage the nuns transformed into a broadcasting studio on Aug. 15, 1981, impacted the lives of those closest to her, beginning with her Eternal Word Television Network family. As the centennial anniversary approached, people who knew and worked with Mother Angelica shared treasured remembrances.
EWTN has planned remembrances April 19-20. EWTN Live, at 8pm April 19, will feature host Father Mitch Pacwa and guests from the EWTN family reminiscing about Mother.
April 20 is to be a daylong commemoration, with live Masses from Rome and Irondale, Alabama, and Rosaries, along with inspirational features celebrating her life, in addition to a special Women of Grace. Bishop Steven Raica of Birmingham, Alabama, is to celebrate Mass in Rome’s Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia.
EWTN Global Catholic Network’s Chairman of the Board and CEO Michael Warsaw said that celebrating this anniversary is “a great time to look back with gratitude for Mother Angelica’s life and realize how blessed we all were to live in a time in history where God gave her to us. Personally, she was one of the greatest blessings in my life and the life of my family. I think there is also no doubt that Mother Angelica was one of the greatest blessings that the Church has been given in this era.”
A Faith-Filled Life
The remarkable Canton, Ohio, native who became a Poor Clare nun went on to found two thriving religious orders and the world’s largest religious media network. Her life was one marked by many trials, but also by a profound “Yes” to whatever she felt God was asking of her.
After experiencing various ailments, including an inability to walk, Sister Mary Angelica promised God that if she was able to walk again, she would found a monastery in the South. But with God’s help, she accomplished much more.
“Armed with only $200, and 12 cloistered nuns with no television background, Mother turned the monastery’s garage into a television studio,” her EWTN biography recalls. “In 1981, EWTN went on the air as the country’s first Catholic satellite television station. Mother became a television star hosting a popular and still running show, Mother Angelica Live. … Today, EWTN is the largest Catholic media organization in the world … [a]ll because of one nun who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer, and instead relied on God to provide.”
Warsaw remembered Mother telling him one time about how she had asked the Lord in prayer why he had chosen her to create EWTN.
“The answer she heard was that she wasn’t the first person he had asked, but she was the first person who said ‘Yes.’ I think that should be a lesson we can all take from Mother,” Warsaw explained.
“When God asked her to do anything in her life, she always said, ‘Yes.’ She always had complete and total trust in his providence. She knew that if she did her part, God would do his part. Imagine how much better the Church and the world would be if we all trusted in Providence more and if, like Mother Angelica, we all said, ‘Yes’ more.”
Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word and EWTN chaplain, recalled to the Register, “Mother had a wonderful sense of humor that kept things light, even when there were significant troubles going on. For her, God was in control, and so we shouldn’t take these things — or ourselves, for that matter — too seriously. I remember a study that was done on successful managers. The study showed that the most successful managers were those who had a passion about what they were doing — and that they had fun doing it — and so others wanted to go along for the ride. That was Mother Angelica.”
Behind the Scenes
Jesuit Father Pacwa, current host of EWTN Live and Scripture and Tradition, began working with Mother Angelica in 1984 and through those years witnessed her greatest love. “For every hour she spent on the air, she would spend four hours before the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Pacwa well remembers. “That was extremely important for her. She needed to stay focused on Jesus Our Lord. She loved Jesus so much.”
“That was one of the most important lessons I learned from her,” Father Pacwa said. “Her focus was not in wanting people to like her, but people to like Jesus. It was that key to her.”
Viewers instinctively knew and were drawn to that quality of Mother always being herself.
In 1992, Mother Angelica hired Michele Brewster, who is part of EWTN’s programming department. Today, Brewster said she is “blessed” to have worked with Mother in many different capacities in those early years.
She told the Register, “Some of my fondest memories are floor directing for her Tuesday and Wednesday night Live shows. The crew would always come together in the studio kitchen before the live show for a brief meeting and prayer. She took a personal interest in us, like a good Italian grandmother. She would share her spiritual wisdom with us, check to see how we were doing, joke with us, correct us, challenge us, celebrate milestones with us, and pray with us.”
Today, as in the past, Brewster remains “so grateful that Mother challenged us to work on our relationship with God daily and that he can use each of us right where we are, imperfect as we are, if we let him.”
That total trust in God also stands out to Father Pacwa.
“I’ll never forget one time I came to do a show, and 10 minutes before the show started, she said, ‘What do you want to talk about?’”
He answered her, “I don’t know. What do you want to talk about?”
“Well, we’ll go out there and talk about Jesus,” she replied.
“And neither one of us had an ounce of nervousness,” Father Pacwa recalled. “That was when I realized that this is just who she is: She was going to focus on Jesus.”
That Christ-centered focus always saw EWTN through, he added. “We never signed up for Neilson ratings. We didn’t advertise. We were just going to put the Gospel out there, and the Lord will use it as he will. That was something very important to her. That became an important part of what she taught me. I look to that as one of the key teaching moments.”
More Lessons Learned
Mother’s words and actions continue to resonate today.
Father Joseph Mary said two of Mother’s pieces of advice have helped him achieve greater peace. “One is ‘Living in the Present Moment’ — yesterday is gone, tomorrow is unborn; all we have is this present moment to love God and to love our neighbor,” he said. “And we are all called to be saints,” he emphasized. “That is a simple way to grow in holiness.”
Father Joseph Mary has never forgotten another important lesson Mother modeled. “She once said: ‘The Lord taught me one lesson my whole life long: to trust him more.’”
“We can see that in Mother’s life as the network grew,” Father Joseph Mary said, “and then, the new works of radio and the shrine came along; and then, when her health declined, she had to trust him more. We all do. But we must always remember that he is trustworthy (that is, he is worthy of our trust), and he is always faithful. We need a deep confidence in his providence.”
EWTN President and COO Doug Keck shared another incident highlighting Mother’s deep faith.
“When my son Matt, who is a high-functioning autistic, made his confirmation, I mentioned it in a meeting to Mother Angelica. She stood up and said, ‘I need to give him something to remember this great occasion.’ So she dug out her rosary purse and pulled out her rosary beads as a gift for Matt,” he said. “The interesting part was that, along with her rosary, she also kept a little, tiny plastic baby Jesus in her purse. She remarked that she couldn’t give him away because he was too important to her and needed to stay in her pocket. It was then that I really understood how important not only the Lord was in Mother’s spiritual life, but especially his incarnation as a child, and hence why the issue of abortion is what was so hurtful to her.”
At the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, which Mother Angelica opened in 1999, Poor Clare Sister Michael shared a memory from the early years with Mother.
“Problems and challenges did not discourage Mother. They were opportunities to look for a solution. No pity parties allowed. If one door closes, go through another; follow the lead of Our Lord, and be on with it. What seemed to be setbacks often turned out to be an opening to something bigger and better.”
And she was ever ready to convince her friends of that conviction.
Keck recalled that in the years Mother was living at the monastery in Hanceville and no longer directly involved with the network, he and his wife went for a visit.
“Walking down the hallway, we were surprised and delighted to see Mother with one of the other sisters outside the cloister working on a particular issue,” said Keck. “When she saw us, she greeted us incredibly warmly, giving us both a hug.
“She asked us how we were doing, and my wife indicated that she had been suffering with some chronic pain over the last few months that had not gone away and which the doctors could not pinpoint,” he continued. “Mother then said, ‘Well, would you want me to pray over you for healing?’ And before we could enthusiastically say, ‘Yes,’ Mother, in her inimitable fashion, said, ‘I don’t know if it’ll do any good, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!’ We all laughed, and after she prayed over my wife, she did in fact get much better. I always think of this story because it illustrates the true humility of this great woman that my family and I were privileged and graced to work with.”
Profound Trust in God
Warsaw said he is often asked by people “what Mother’s iconic phrase is. I always say that I believe it is, ‘Dare to do the ridiculous, so that God can accomplish the miraculous!’ That sums up so much of how she lived her life.”
One example after another proved this. “People always doubted her at every stage of her life,” he said. “She was always on the margins of society. She was poor and from a broken family, with a mother who had serious emotional issues. She had very few advantages in life. She had enormous sufferings. Yet God always was there for her. He was always in her life, guiding and healing her and bringing her forward to do the work he had destined for her. In founding EWTN, the world looked at Mother and thought this whole idea was ridiculous. From both inside and outside the Church, the idea that a cloistered nun with barely a high-school education and so many physical challenges could create a television network was seen as ridiculous.
“But it wasn’t ridiculous to Mother Angelica. She knew that God had called her to do this work and that just as he had done throughout her life, he would give her what she needed to make it happen. And that’s precisely what happened. And when we look back now over the more than four decades since she started EWTN, we can see countless miracles that God has accomplished through EWTN because she dared to do what the world thought was ridiculous.”