Happy 90th Birthday, Mother Angelica!

Trust in Jesus has sustained the foundress of EWTN through the years, according to timely tributes.

(photo: EWTN)

Mother Angelica celebrates her 90th birthday on April 20.

EWTN and the worldwide EWTN family of well over 225 million television households — plus EWTN radio listeners — are celebrating along with her and paying tribute to the woman who has had an effect on lives too numerous to count.

Many fond memories and insights from the past year, and as recently as EWTN Live’s latest special program (which aired on Wednesday), celebrated the special nun who founded the world’s largest Catholic media network, built a magnificent Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery for the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and founded the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word.

Her many years are themselves founded on a total love of Jesus and trust in him.

“Mother’s trust in her Lord, in her God, was so tremendous. If he would have asked her to walk across the whole earth without shoes, she would have done it, because she knew the providence of God would be there always for her,” said Sister Mary Regina of the Holy Angels during the EWTN special this week.

As the first vocation from Alabama to join Mother Angelica, Sister Mary Regina calls herself Mother’s “firstborn” daughter. She well remembers their brief meeting in 1962, while walking through an open house of the first monastery, which was on the site of the present EWTN headquarters in Irondale, Ala.

“She stopped and looked at me — there were a lot of people coming in and out — smiled at me, and went away. … When she turned and looked at me, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I see Jesus!’ I knew that Jesus was looking right at me, and Jesus was saying, ‘This is the monastery you have to come to.’”


Drawing Everyone to Christ

Over the years, Mother Angelica has had a way of drawing everyone, even viewers across the country, to Christ.

“She had a way of making holiness seem very attractive to the normal person,” Sister Mary Agnes of Jesus shared on the special.

“And she had a great sense of humor,” Sister Mary Agnes added. “She was somebody everybody wanted to be with. Everybody wanted to be with Mother because she was a lot of fun. But, at the same time, she was holy. She gave a whole different aspect to what holiness is.”

Father Mitch Pacwa, the host of EWTN Live, noted how Mother integrated her holiness into everyday life in a good-natured way.

Father Anthony Mary Stelten, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word’s community servant, described how, when you met Mother, she had an ability to make you feel welcome, like you were part of the mission: “She just invited you to step in and be a part of it.”

She was very natural and inspiring, even in the way she taught about Jesus and her knowledge of Scripture, he said.

“People knew that God loved them — just the way she talked about him,” Father Stelten said.

One of Sister Mary Agnes’ favorite memories, as she told the Register last year, was being with Mother and the sisters for recreation time after supper. The sisters would gather around Mother as she opened her Bible and began talking about God, the spiritual life and the saints. The sisters would respond with comments, stories and, many times, much laughter.

“Mother could go from the mundane to the mystical in a minute, for she really did live in the ‘present moment,’” recalled Sister Mary Agnes. “These recreations and Mother’s morning lessons with the community in our refectory were a source of spiritual strength and joy for me — and many times an ‘Emmaus’ experience. I would leave the room thinking, ‘Was not my heart burning within me as she opened the Scriptures?’”

Sister Mary Michael similarly remembered such moments with Mother in the same 2012 interview: “Over the years, these lessons became some of the most memorable times in our life together. Mother’s well of insights, advice, stories, depth of spirituality never seemed to dry up. She was ever alert to do God’s will, whatever it was, even if it made her look foolish in the eyes of the world. She was never afraid of failure, but only of not doing God’s will.”

On the EWTN special, Father Pacwa talked about Mother’s authenticity.

“To me,” highlighted Father Pacwa, “one of the most important things about Mother Angelica is that what you saw on TV is what you knew off of the stage as well. There was no difference.”

That love and naturalness had a way of attracting everyone. So did her enormous insight into people.


Called to EWTN

Before Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN and publisher of the Register, first came to work for EWTN in 1991, he met Mother in 1987, while he was working at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. As he recalled on this week’s show, he talked to her about televising Masses from the basilica. In 1990, he hosted her for a visit to Washington for several public events.

“Before she went off to the airport,” Warsaw recalled, “she was about to get into the car and put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Well, sweetheart, why don’t you come and work for me?’ And she got in the car, waved and drove off, and left me standing on the curb thinking, ‘Well, I think that was a job offer.’”

Six months later, he and his wife moved to Birmingham, Ala.

EWTN’s executive vice president, Doug Keck, had a similar experience. As he recalled on the show, when “you came down and met Mother, and she invited you to come, there really weren’t a lot of options. You were coming.”

Keck shared how, back then, his son, who was 8 at the time, “kept looking at her and saying, ‘She’s just so beautiful. She’s just so beautiful.’” The boy captured what countless people have seen over the years, because, as Keck put it, he saw who she really was.

And Mother’s great insight has impacted Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, EWTN’s chaplain, as well. He originally came to work for EWTN as an engineer. One day, she stopped by his booth as she came in to pray with the crew, as she always did.

“Mother Angelica said, ‘You’re going to be a brother in the new community I’m starting, but you don’t know it yet,’” shared Father Joseph on the TV special. “And then she walked off. She was right.”


Motherly and Grandmotherly

Mother Angelica’s perception allowed her to share the truth, recalled Father Pacwa: “She loves Jesus and wants to honor him. She loves the folks. That’s why, at times, she could get away with saying tough things: true things about what was right and wrong. Just like your mom and the sisters that taught us in school, you didn’t like being told tough things, but you knew she was right. She did it because she loves you.”

Warsaw also reflected on Mother’s unique ability in this regard.

“She herself, at times, would talk about the fact that she was a grandmotherly type of figure and that everybody needs their grandmother to keep them straight and to set them straight when they were wrong,” he said. “I think that was, in a way, how she always saw herself and her role on the air.”

In 2000, Sister Mary Agnes asked Mother Angelica, “What was the happiest day of your life?”

“She said that it was the consecration day of the new chapel in our monastery,” recalled Sister Mary Agnes. “Only she could tell you why it was her ‘happiest day,’ but I realized that it was a dream come true for her. She had always desired to give Jesus beautiful things — the best she could give. When she built this temple [as she called it] in honor of the divine Child Jesus, she made it as beautiful as she possibly could and gave him the second-largest monstrance in the world.”

Well before that, as Sister Mary Agnes pointed out on the special this week, Mother would be up very early each morning and spend a couple of hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

“There was Mother with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic adoration at a point in time when other people thought that was passé,” Keck added on this week's show. “We see what a visionary she was to stay with that and how much of the revitalization in the Church and in the priesthood is based upon Eucharistic adoration.”


An Evangelical Catholic

Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala., offered yet another insight into Mother’s rare abilities over the phone on the TV special.

“In a special way, I think George Weigel’s book Evangelical Catholicism summarizes what Mother Angelica was about,” Bishop Baker said. “She not only invented that term, many years ago, but put it into practice concretely — working so beautifully off the Scriptures and bringing the truth and the love and the life of the Gospel of Jesus to so many people, not only to our Catholic household of faith, but to many thousands of people who are not Catholic, in that beautiful way she had of touching lives, bringing so many people into the Catholic household of faith.

“There are many people out there whose lives are being touched directly by her and by that great charism that she had to kind of invent, in a way what George Weigel typified for the Church in our modern age of ‘Evangelical Catholicism.’”

That evangelical outreach has touched countless lives, accounted for many conversions and vocations, and saved people from death because they happened to tune into EWTN at a time when they were thinking of suicide or despairing in other ways.

The network she started has helped many people through hard times. Now, her shows are being translated into languages like Spanish, German, French, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Korean.

She was also pleased when EWTN acquired the National Catholic Register in 2011, as she always wanted a newspaper as part of the network’s mission.

As Warsaw put it on the special, “It’s remarkable to me that Mother can be translated and be relevant in each of these cultures and in each of these languages and that message still comes through. People have a great, great love for Mother, regardless of what language it is. She’s able, and has been able all these years, to not only remain timeless, but to be able to have a message that translates across all countries and across all boundaries. It’s really remarkable.”

Happy 90th birthday, Mother Angelica! We love you!


Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.