Mother Angelica’s Monastery at 50: Southern Hospitality Meets Divine Providence
The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration celebrate a major milestone: May 20 issue feature.
On May 20, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Mother Angelica’s Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Alabama. Mother Angelica’s Poor Clares are part of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration order which originated in France.
On May 20, 1962, Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile, Ala., dedicated the monastery in Irondale, Ala. Twelve days earlier, on May 8, Mother Angelica, along with four other sisters, left Sancta Clara in Canton, Ohio, for this new foundation of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in the suburbs of Birmingham.
Facing a serious spinal operation, Mother Angelica — who celebrated her 89th birthday on April 20 — had promised to build a monastery for Our Lord in the South if he allowed her to walk again.
Sister Mary Michael has fond memories of those early days. Of the original five nuns who came that May from Ohio to Alabama, she is the only one remaining besides Mother Angelica.
She remembers tearful good-byes in Canton and the drive to Birmingham, where she and the sisters rode in a station wagon with Mae Francis, Mother Angelica’s natural mother, who became the first postulant and later Sister Mary David. Luggage was minimal.
In Canton, the sisters made and sold “St. Peter’s Fishing Lures,” hoping the venture would be the means of supporting themselves in Alabama. After an article about the “The Fishing Lure Nuns” appeared, they “were able to raise enough money to pay for the land in Birmingham,” Sister Mary Michael says.
Early in 1961, Mother Angelica and Sister Mary Veronica searched for and found about 15 hillside acres in Irondale. That September, Mother and Sister Mary Joseph returned to Irondale to oversee the monastery’s construction.
“Mother had already made a scale model of the monastery so that the architect had something to go by, and Mother proved to be a very capable contractor, foreman and businesswoman all rolled into one,” Sister Mary Michael recalls. “She won the respect of workmen and businessmen alike, who soon realized they couldn’t pull anything over on her. She could read architect plans as good as anyone. It wasn’t long before wonderful people came by and offered to help, often with big donations. The excavating, all the concrete, block and brick were donated, as well as flooring and kitchen appliances.”
Shortly before dedication day, Joe Bruno, who owned a chain of supermarkets, visited. Mother Angelica gave him a tour and explained to him the sisters’ life of adoration.
“Before he left, he said he would give us our food for a year. He never stopped,” says Sister Mary Michael. “He fed us till the day he died and went to his eternal reward.”
Southern hospitality met divine Providence, it seemed.
“The people of Birmingham received us with open arms, incredible generosity and kindness,” she remembers. “It was Southern hospitality at its best! We were overwhelmed by all their love and support.”
Mother’s ‘Mini Books’
By 1971, with the “charismatic renewal” in full swing and Mother speaking at Scripture conferences locally and charismatic groups nationally, the sisters started duplicating the taped talks.
By 1972, Mother, having recognized the hunger for basic catechesis far and wide, began writing many “mini books.” The sisters printed, packaged and shipped these works by the thousands.
Among them, Sister Marie Emmanuel, who joined the monastery in the late 1960s, ran the printing presses and helped send the mini books and tapes all over the world.
“So, besides being a contemplative, this work made me feel like a real missionary,” she remembers. “We were giving souls food for their spiritual life. It was like lighting the candles of their souls so they could have joy, peace and union with God.”
In the 1970s, she was among the sisters who helped Mother Angelica clean the rocks in front of the monastery, clear trees, and make tier fountains for water to cascade around their statue of Our Lady of the Angels. They finished in time for their Eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
The mission expanded on Aug. 15, 1981: The community rejoiced as Mother Angelica launched Eternal Word Television Network in, of all places, the monastery garage. The Register is a service of EWTN.
When Sister Mary Agnes of Jesus entered the monastery in 1986, EWTN was only on the air four hours a day. The sisters answered the phones for Mother Angelica Live and had telethons to keep the station on the air.
“We also opened and read all the mail, which was very time consuming but rewarding,” says Sister Mary Agnes, who has been Mother’s secretary for years, “as we were able to see the fruit of our prayers and how God was using the network to change peoples’ lives for the better.”
Moments With Mother
Sister Mary Agnes’ favorite memory “from this time was being with Mother and the sisters for recreation after supper. We had only 16 sisters at the time, so we would gather around Mother as she opened her Bible and began talking about God, the spiritual life, the example and lives of 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.’ 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 remembers these moments with Mother: “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.
“Over the years, her spirituality and talents and great desire to spread God’s love would continue to grow and blossom, becoming great blessings for the many individuals who came to the monastery seeking her advice — through her mini books, which we sent free all over the world, and now through television and radio.”
An unforgettable moment came in December 1993, when Mother Angelica and the sisters returned to wearing the full traditional habit. Another milestone was in 1996, as the network grew and the monastery received more vocations. Both needed more room.
Sister Mary Agnes says that Mother, deciding to “ease the squeeze,” bought farming property an hour north in Hanceville, Ala., to build a chapel and monastery. On Dec. 19, 1999, their Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville was consecrated. The sisters had a new home.
Sister Mary Gabriel, one of the 19 sisters now at the monastery, first thought of becoming a nun as a 3-year-old in Vietnam. Attending Mass at the monastery, she got to meet Mother Angelica, and today recalls how “she helped me understand and love God more deeply. I desire to be at his [God’s] feet all the days of my life so that I can intercede for all God’s children throughout the world. We are so blessed to be adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament.”
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,” recalls 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.”
“We who live here now are blest to continue this adoration of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day,” says Sister Mary Agnes, “in a spirit of reparative thanksgiving, praying for the world and all those souls entrusted to us.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
A commemorative CD for the Poor Clares’ 50th anniversary is available from EWTNReligiousCatalogue.com. EWTN will televise a live thanksgiving Mass on May 19 at 9am Eastern.