On one of my first visits to Rome some years ago, I stepped into an elevator on my way to a meeting in the Vatican. I was greeted by a friendly cleric. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Birmingham, Alabama,” I replied. “Oh,” he said in a hushed tone, “do you know Mother Angelica?” I explained that I was a Baptist theologian, not a Roman Catholic, but that I greatly admired Mother Angelica and was a fan of her Eternal Word Television Network.
In fact, only once did I meet Mother Angelica in person. It was at the Birmingham airport as I was returning home from a trip. As I stepped off the plane, there was Mother Angelica, with balloons and smiles and several of her nuns in tow, to greet a Catholic celebrity who had come to make a guest appearance on her “Mother Angelica Live!” TV show. Somehow, Mother Angelica, who had a knack for getting around barriers that stood in her way, had made it past security and was there to greet her friend in person.
Her given name was Rita Antoinette Rizzo, and she was born on the wrong side of the tracks in 1923 in Canton, Ohio, a hometown she shared with the slain President William McKinley. She was once a drum majorette at McKinley High School there. The daughter of an abusive father and a distraught mother, young Rita Rizzo had a hardscrabble life growing up—“moving from place to place, poor, hungry and barely surviving,” she remembered. Her desperate life was made worse by illnesses and accidents, one after another, the scars of which she bore for the rest of her life. Mother Angelica believed in divine healing and miracles, and received several in the course of her ninety-two years. But she also learned to accept suffering as a part of God’s overcoming purpose in a fallen world. Her pain was providential, she believed, a part of her purification. Through brokenness, she came to know Jesus Christ and to share in what St. Paul called “the fellowship (koinonia) of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
Mother Angelica once summarized her life in this way: I am just “some street woman who got sick and was given many things.” One of the greatest things she was given was an extraordinary sense of vision—not merely vision in the sense of apparitions and supernatural visitations but vision defined as discernment, deep insight, the ability to anticipate the future and to act with boldness in bringing it to pass.
Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, the name Rita Rizzo assumed when she entered the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in 1944, did things that cloistered, contemplative nuns are not supposed to do. In 1962, she started one monastery in Irondale, Alabama, and forty years later (and forty miles to the north) she built another one in rural Cullman County. At the heart of the new monastery is the imposing Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a modern monument to Catholic devotion replete with a visitors center that looks like a thirteenth-century Italian castle—a piece of medieval Umbria in present-day Alabama. The campus is housed on 403 acres, an area larger than that of Vatican City. In 1981, she founded EWTN. At the time of her death on Easter Sunday, this global religious network, which began humbly in a monastery garage, was reaching 230 million homes in more than 140 countries around the world. Mother Angelica was a speaker, writer, entrepreneur, media mogul, missionary, evangelist, teacher, an abbess of the airwaves.
Someone said this of Mother Angelica: “She was out of the ordinary, and into everything.” As Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who served on the board of EWTN, has said, “Mother Angelica succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve. She founded and grew a network that appealed to everyday Catholics, understood their needs and fed their spirits. Mother Angelica inspired other gifted people to join her in the work without compromising her own leadership and vision.”
The tale of how Alabama became the locus of Mother Angelica’s apostolic activities has been well told in Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, an admiring but not uncritical biography by Raymond Arroyo. When Mother Angelica arrived in Birmingham in 1961, the city was rife with racial tension and religious discrimination, much of it inspired by a virulent KKK. Some older citizens still remembered the brutal murder of Father James E. Coyle, who had been shot to death on the steps of his church by a Protestant minister in 1921. In 1962, while the first monastery was still under construction, there was an assault by several gunmen, and Mother Angelica herself literally dodged a bullet. She later said, “You never saw a crippled nun run so fast in all your life!”
Over the years, Mother Angelica overcame much anti-Catholic prejudice through her ministry of hospitality and active intercessory prayer for everyone in Birmingham regardless of race or creed. Mother Angelica offered Bible studies for persons of all denominations and hired a Baptist architect to design her monastery. Birmingham Bishop Robert J. Baker said about the most famous Catholic in his diocese: “Mother Angelica brought 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 faith.” On his last visit to Beeson Divinity School, the late Father Benedict Groeschel conveyed a blessing from Mother Angelica for our evangelical community and the assurance of her prayers on our behalf.
The early years of Mother Angelica’s ministry in Alabama coincided with the events of Vatican II. Mother Angelica is often called a traditionalist, but that term cannot be used of her without qualification. She welcomed many of the changes stemming from the Council but resisted others. She opposed what she saw as an untethered aggiornamento that undermined a more substantial réssourcement. Mother Angelica was feisty, quick-tempered, and unintimidatable. Like great leaders in all walks of life, she inspired both fierce loyalty and intense opposition. Richard John Neuhaus once wrote an article, “The Case of the Uppity Nun,” in which he chronicled some of Mother Angelica’s public disputes with the Catholic hierarchy. When she refused to interview certain bishops on EWTN, they challenged her authority to turn them down. “I own the network,” she replied. When the bishops reminded her that she would not always be around to call the shots, she retorted, “Well, I’ll blow the whole damn thing up before you get it!”
At the end of the day, though, she was able to get past such disputes because she wanted to be a faithful daughter of the Catholic Church, which she deeply loved. She saw EWTN and its ancillary ministries as a supplement to the church, not a substitute for it. While she had defenders and detractors in the Vatican and elsewhere, she was held in high esteem by John Paul II, who rightly saw her as an effective agent for the New Evangelization. In 2009, she was awarded the Cross of Honor for distinguished service by Benedict XVI, the highest award a pope can give to a member of the church who is not a priest. Earlier this year, Pope Francis sent this video message: “To Mother Angelica with my blessing, and I ask you to pray for me; I need it. God bless you, Mother Angelica.”
After her stroke in 2001, Mother Angelica entered a final phase of quiescent suffering, one marked by revolutionary patience but also joy. When asked how she was able to maintain her joy and avoid self-pity in such circumstances, she replied: “I do what I do because it is the will of God and that alone gives me joy—nothing else. Other things can give me happiness but doing God’s will is my joy.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.