Mother Angelica and the Pain of Providence
The asthma was back. The heavy coughing that convulses her body
beneath the habit, the tightening of the chest, the drowning
struggle to pull in another gasp of air-still Mother Mary Angelica
was determined to make her show.
With potentially forty-one million households counting on her, she
couldn't stay in bed. As host of the twice-weekly, , foundress of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and
CEO of the Eternal Word Television Network, the 72-year-old abbess
keeps a relentless schedule. Tonight God would provide a little
Mother's right-hand man and president of EWTN Deacon Bill
Steltemeier darts into the studio minutes before show time. With a
smile that could make a Cheshire cat jealous and considerable
Southern charm, he begins recruiting from the audience.
"Father," he drawls at an unsuspecting priest, "Mother's asthma is
acting up again; you're going to have to shoulder the show for
her." A joyous smile split Steltemeier's face, completing the
Before Father Robert Levis (a guest on the
night before) can formulate an excuse, he is surrounded by a cadre
of makeup people, set masters, and technicians bent on beating the
clock. Prepared or no, Father Levis is cohost of the show.
Steltemeier began praying the rosary in the chair next to me.
"It's divine providence: divine providence that Father was here
just when Mother needed him," an audience regular informs me.
Divine providence is taken very seriously in these parts.
Two minutes before show time Mother enters the studio. Despite two
aluminum crutches and a brace that runs from the middle of her
back to the sole of her foot, she maneuvers with amazing agility.
"Hello and where are you from?" she says quietly, greeting the
adoring flock. The voice is a soft whisper, not at all the voice
of a woman capable of sending shock waves through Catholic
liberals everywhere. Everything about the woman is unexpected.
Where you would expect to find vaudevillian humor and a brassy
edge, you find tenderness and caring. And though the humor is
there, it camouflages an intense holiness and deep devotion to God
that television fails to extract. Mother captivates everyone she
touches (and she touches quite regularly!) with a warm handshake
that lingers into a hand hold. While the subject of her attention
is held by the soft face peering out from the traditional
Franciscan habit, Mother's deep brown eyes seem to penetrate the
very soul of the recipient: searching, scanning, registering the
intentions and motivations of the speaker. It feels like it could
go on forever.
"One minute till air, Mother."
"OK, let's get on with it," the feisty foundress answers, gently
removing herself from the audience.
Within minutes the crutches are whisked away, the audience is
laughing, Mother is talking to millions, and Steltemeier has only
begun the second decade of the rosary. No one would ever know the
severity or the constancy of pain Mother Angelica carries with
Pain and God's divine providence are no strangers to Mother
Angelical Indeed they are the lifeblood of EWTN. A way of life for
Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1923 to John and Mae Rizzo, Mother
Angelica learned early about pain and disappointment. After her
father abandoned them, Rita and Mae struggled to keep a failing
dry cleaning business afloat in their Italian neighborhood. They
worked diligently, sacrificing the comforts of life, to say
nothing of Rita's childhood. "I can't honestly say I had a real
childhood," Mother Angelica remembers. "I was unhappy and very
lonely. That had an effect on me."
The stigma of divorce, endless cold nights in rat-infested
apartments, and her mother's suicidal depression took its toll on
Rita. And though neither mother nor daughter regularly attended
Mass, Mother Angelica says they had a "deep reverence for God" and
trust in his "wondrous grace" during the darkest moments. Her
first brush with that grace came one day while walking in downtown
Canton. As she crossed a busy intersection, Rita found herself in
the path of a speeding car. Unable to move, she closed her eyes,
bracing for the impact. When she opened them she was standing on
the sidewalk, unharmed. Mother Angelica says she was lifted
through the air out of harm's way: a fact supported by
Both Rita and Mae Rizzo attributed the intervention to God.
Rita Rizzo's first taste of divine providence would kindle a deep
religious devotion within the girl. But it was the pain to come
that would perfect her devotion and draw her even closer to
In 1938 Rita suffered with ever-increasing abdominal pain; the
diagnosis was intestinal difficulties. By 1941 the pain was
crushing. On the advice of a holy woman, Rita earnestly began a
nine-day novena asking for the intercession of St. Teresa the
Little Flower. At the conclusion of the novena, Rita found herself
completely healed, with no reoccurring symptoms. Mother Angelica
has said, "That was the day I found God and really began to pray
in an entirely new way."
Rita Rizzo would never be the same. Daily, she began to pray the
Stations of the Cross at St. Anthony's Church. "That was the only
way to express my sympathy for the Lord," she says. It is
interesting that of all the devotions of the Church, Rita would
choose a meditation dedicated to the torturous pains endured by
Christ on his road to victory. It was as if God was preparing Rita
for a mystical, painful intimacy.
During one of her sojourns to St. Anthony's, kneeling before Our
Lady of Sorrows, the impossible happened. "When I knelt I just
knew it, I just knew it. I was to be a nun," Mother Angelica says.
The girl who called nuns "the meanest people I ever met" was on
her way to the cloister.
Directed by a local monsignor, Rita joined the Poor Clares, a
contemplative order dedicated to adoration of Our Lord in the
Blessed Sacrament. Rita's mother was not told of her daughter's
decision until she was in the cloister, and even then, she hated
the idea. A distance would remain between mother and daughter for
years to come.
Brimming with enthusiasm, Rita Rizzo was reborn in the personage
of Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. She threw herself
into prayer and work, expecting to spend her life behind the walls
of the cloister. But God had other plans: pain and divine
providence were beginning their dance once again.
Cleaning floors at the monastery was commonplace for Sister
Angelica; this day she was using a heavy floor scrubber.
It was a mundane activity that would alter her life and the lives
of millions the world over.
As she maneuvered the clumsy machine across the floor, Sister
Angelica slipped on the suds, losing control of the scrubber. As
she struggled to her feet the heavy machine spun around, pinning
her against the wall. Her spine took the brunt of the accident.
Doctors were uncertain she would ever walk again. Laying on a
hospital bed, uncertain of her future, Sister Angelica struck an
outrageous bargain with God: "Lord, if you allow me to walk again
I will build a monastery to your glory," she pleaded. "And I will
build it in the South."
In time Sister Angelica was up and walking with the help of a leg
brace and a crutch. True to her word, she began selling fishing
lures to raise revenue for the monastery in the South. After
writing to several bishops for an invitation to establish a
monastery, Sister Angelica received word from the bishop of
Birmingham, Alabama. "Ya'll come," the bishop's letter read.
Without hesitation Mother Angelica and a small band of nuns headed
to Irondale, Alabama, to establish a Catholic stronghold in the
heavily Protestant region. (Only 2.5 percent of the population of
the diocese is Catholic even today.) Joining the sisters was a
most unlikely extern: Sister Mary David, from Canton, Ohio. Like
St. Clare, whose mother, Ortolana, joined her order as a sister;
Mae Rizzo joined Mother Angelica's order in 1961, taking the name
Mary David. "I became her superior. How do you like that?" Mother
Angelica recalls with a mischievous grin. "I called her sister and
she called ME Mother!" A new religious family that only God could
have devised was taking shape.
As mother of the fledgling flock, Angelica would give
extemporaneous lessons to the sisters on the lives of the saints,
scripture, or whatever the spirit led her to speak about. So
inspiring were the talks they soon made their way into little
books, printed by the sisters. Requests for the books came from
all over the country, and Mother was soon a hot commodity on the
Armed with St. Clare's devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and the
evangelical zeal of St. Francis, Mother preached the gospel in
unexpected ways: through audiocassettes, television interviews,
and a video series for the Christian Broadcast Network. She
reflected recently on the legacy Francis and Clare left behind and
the effect it has had on her life and work: "The thing that
attracts me [to Francis and Clare] is their absolute dependence on
the providence of God. They saw him in all. And what they
undertook was not planned by them, but through their love and
detachment they fit into whatever was happening in the present."
So did Mother.
When the local station she contracted to film her video series
decided to air a movie denying the resurrection of Christ, Mother
was seized by the "present moment" and blew her top. She insisted
that the station drop the movie, or she would walk. The station
manager got nasty, threatening that she'd "be off television
permanently" if she left. "I don't need you, I only need God,"
Mother fired back, "I will build my own studio, buy my own
cameras, and tape my own shows." The annunciation of EWTN was fast
Starting in a garage next to the monastery in 1981, EWTN has
blossomed into the largest religious cable network in the world.
Two constants remain fifteen years later, despite the enormous
growth-Mother's pain, and her total faith in divine providence.
That dependence on the Lord in all matters has infected EWTN's 180
employees as well, not all of whom are Catholic. Roughly 30 to 40
percent of the EWTN staff is Protestant, but no less committed to
Mother's vision for the network and to her divinely inspired
"We don't keep budgets here. Mother doesn't believe in them," EWTN
Vice President of Marketing Marynell Ford (who happens to be a
Protestant) told me. "Mother says, 'Why limit God?' If you budget
forty thousand dollars and he gives you fifty thousand, isn't that
In 1994 EWTN received more than $12 million in donations, not with
telethons or outlandish promises of prosperity, but with a simple
phrase Mother Angelica throws in from time to time at the end of
her show: ". . . remember to keep us between the gas and the
electric bill, bye now." Miraculously, the funds are always there,
keeping the $34 million network up and running, regardless of the
expensive projects undertaken.
True to her motto: "Join us or get out of the way," there is no
shortage of projects. In August 1995, EWTN went international,
reaching more than forty-two countries in Europe, Africa, and
Central and South America with around-the-clock programming.
Spanish translations of many EWTN programs were added to the
lineup, and last October the network offered continuous coverage
of the pope's visit to the United States to every cable company in
the country. Regardless of available funds, EWTN relies totally on
God's direction and trusts that He will provide.
"When it comes to making the big decisions, I do it." Mother
Angelica says. "I'm very adamant: once I realize that God wants
something, I go for it and push everyone toward it. You have to
respond to the will of God in the present moment. If God inspires
you, you have to do it. Where most people go wrong is, they reason
themselves out of what God wants, and they spoil what might have
Mother Angelica's fleet and immovable decisions are not mere
caprice, but the result of four to five hours of daily prayer in
the place many EWTN employees call "the powerhouse."
Located in the epicenter of the EWTN complex is the monastery
chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is enthroned in a silver
monstrance of radiant delicacy. A partition separates the cloister
from the public, with the Body of Christ visible from either side.
At any time of the day the chapel is populated with employees on
their side, sisters on the other, bent in adoration before the
Lord. It is here Mother Angelica discerns the will of God for her
sisters and for the network.
Such was the case in 1991, when, after telling Bill Steltemeier of
her intention to retire from the network, a revelation came.
During prayer Mother Angelica says the Lord told her that her work
had only begun. Uncertain of how to proceed, she began meditating
on scripture. A verse from the Book of Revelation led the way:
"Then I saw another angel flying overhead, with the eternal good
news to announce to those who dwell on earth, to every tribe, to
every tongue." (Rev. 14:6). Mother felt inspired to build a short-
wave radio network capable of reaching the world. But where would
she get the money for such an enormous undertaking? Divine
providence was about to walk through the door....
While standing in a hotel lobby in Rome, Mother was approached by
Piet Derksen, a Dutch philanthropist eager to endow a large
Catholic undertaking. Walking up to Mother he simply said, "You're
the one." "I know," responded Mother. Though they had never met
before, Derksen would give EWTN $23 million to build the short-
wave station on a mountain top near the network.
A familiar event preceded the 1992 opening. For nearly three
months Mother Angelica would lay in a hospital bed suffering with
severe asthma and bronchitis. The cough was so intense she broke a
vertebra, rekindling her "sympathy for the sufferings of Jesus."
"The pain is a preparation and a protection for my soul," Mother
says, shifting in her chair. "Every time something happens [to me]
the network moves further ahead; I'll either get bad asthma or
crush a vertebra. After my vocation the greatest thing God has
given me are my braces and the pain. It makes me depend totally
upon the Lord. I have no choice."
Without pain pills or resentment Mother Angelica freely embraces
the suffering, considering it a necessary price for progress,
spiritually and otherwise.
"Mother's pain is part of the plan," Frank Phillips, vice
president of the radio network, told me on our steep ascent to the
short-wave station. Traveling up the gravel road in his pickup,
Phillips turned to me with a knowing glint in this eye. "Just wait
till you see this place." As the fog rolled in around us, I
couldn't help recalling the psalm that reads: "Lord, bow down Thy
heavens: touch the mountains and they shall smoke" (Ps. 144:5).
This is a mountain he has touched before. Run by former Navy
Commander Frank Phillips, the "Mountain" (as the station is
called) has the appearance of a well-run ship. The machinery
needed to operate the four transmitters capable of beaming three
separate broadcasts all over the world is staggering. No mom-and-
pop operation, this-floors are gleaming, the unadorned corridors
are spacious, and all about there is a precision and dedication
normally restricted to the military. The only thing missing is the
uniforms. And though much of the tight-knit staff is former
military, don't be fooled. Mother Angelica's touch can be very
strongly felt in every nook and cranny.
Rosaries hang in the stairwells, a magnificent statue of St. Jude
peers down the administrative hallway, and mirroring the
television network, an employee-built chapel housing the Blessed
Sacrament is the center of the operation. Employees say it is more
than coincidence that half the station is situated in St. Clare
county, to say nothing of the antennae's placement.
It is customary to place short-wave antennae in flat open fields,
making it all the more peculiar that Mother Angelica should decide
to place her antennae on a mountain top. According to Mother
Angelica, St. Michael (the Archangel) appeared to her when she
first visited the mountain. It is there, on the site where St.
Michael's appeared, that Mother would decide to erect the
antennae. Flying in the face of all the experts, the antennae
reach millions a day. But no one can explain just how. Even the
British Broadcasting Company has sent a team of experts to try to
unearth the reason. They are still baffled. The folks at EWTN have
their own answer: divine providence.
Using every technological tool available, the evangelical work of
EWTN is expanding. Within the last two months, Mother has found a
home on the Internet and acquired a Catholic news wire. Formerly
known as the Catholic Resource Network, EWTN On Line Services
offers apologetics, church documents, and religious art to World
Wide Web surfers. Covering events affecting the Church around the
globe, EWTN's news wire was created by Philip Lawler, editor of
, as an alternative to the Catholic News
Service. Using the wire, Mother Angelica hopes to offer EWTN
viewers a broadcast news program by the fall. Plans are also under
way to make EWTN's short-wave programming available on AM/FM
stations throughout the United States.
Mother sees great significance in the unexpected growth and
enormous reach of EWTN in recent months. "I think there might be a
bigger reason: This network in all its forms is a supplement, but
not a substitute to the Church. It has the power to pull people
together and teach them about the sacraments; how to be holy in a
world that is anything but." Then turning prophetic Mother adds,
"Over the next few years this network will be able to pull in the
At the conclusion of morning Mass, I caught my last glimpse of
Mother Angelica. As the partition separating us from the cloister
was shut tight, she was struggling through the closing hymn with
her sisters. Soon the chapel was vacant and the motorized cameras
on the walls were still. From behind the partition a faint voice
began reciting the Rosary. "The first glorious mystery: the
Resurrection. Our Father Who Art in heaven...." A guttural,
painful cough interrupted the sisters' recitation. "Thy kingdom
come Thy will be done ...." Again the cough shattered the
serenity. ". . . give us this day our daily bread." Mother's
asthma was back. There in the shadow of the Blessed Sacrament, the
Eternal Word himself, the spouse was again drawing near. The
network was moving forward once more.
RAYMOND ARROYO is a reporter and writer living in Arlington,
This article was taken from the April 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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