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The Eternal Word

The Eternal Word

The Catholic Church thrives in Irondale through media giant EWTN.

January 11, 2007
Who would have guessed that the Catholic Church would be broadcasting across the globe from Irondale, Alabama? Operating deep in the heart of Southern Baptist country, the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) is the largest religious media network on the planet. The programming includes a talk show hosted by an acerbic nun, personal testimonials recounting modern-day miracles, daily prayers, religious instruction, and children’s shows. Mother Angelica began the “global Catholic network” in 1981 with $200 while broadcasting from a garage in the Irondale monastery she started in 1962. (In 1999 she built a new convent in Hanceville, some 50 miles up the road.) EWTN is involved in radio, television, publishing, and the internet. Time magazine has anointed Mother Angelica as the “most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.” With a staff of more than 300 (of whom approximately 70 percent are Catholic), EWTN has an audience of 122 million households in 125 countries through TV, radio, and short-wave broadcasts. The company claims that it has no business plan or growth strategy. Nevertheless, it manages to round up $2.4 million each month to cover expenses, with no requests for donations other than Mother Angelica reminding viewers, “Don’t forget to put us between your gas and electric bill.”

Mother Angelica (click for larger version)

EWTN literally trusts divine intervention. The company is “a work of God,” Mother Angelica told Crisis magazine. “I am always amazed that we have come this far, because when our dear Lord started this thing, I would have never believed this. I thought we’d just make some programs, really, because there were no Catholic programs much of anywhere. And so as it evolved, I was always surprised. It was not ever under my control. It was never a goal. I don’t even know what I thought. I didn’t have a thought. I just always try to listen to the Lord. A lot of things didn’t make sense. But who am I to question?”

Mother Angelica’s is a remarkable story. She was born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, in 1923. Her father abandoned her mother when Rizzo was an infant, and she grew up in poverty. A rebellious child, she resented the nuns who taught her in school. But when she turned 20, Rizzo was miraculously cured of severe stomach pains and decided that God wanted her to become a nun. Much to her mother’s horror, Rizzo joined the Poor Clares convent. Two years later, Rizzo was paralyzed in an accident while scrubbing floors at Poor Clares. She promised God that if she ever walked again, she would build a monastery in the South. In 1961 she led a small group of nuns to Alabama to start a Poor Clares monastery in Irondale. This was the same year her mother found God and became Sister Mary David, having joined her daughter in Alabama at Our Lady of Angels Monastery.

In 1970, Mother Angelica began giving lectures on Catholicism. Her audience began requesting printed copies of her talks, and her media career was launched with the advent of Mother Angelica’s mini-books, short teachings on religious themes that are still available today at no charge. Several years later she taped videos for televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. She pulled out of that deal after the station that aired Robertson’s show refused to cancel a movie that denied Christ’s resurrection. She began broadcasting from a garage in the monastery in 1981. Though it offered only a few hours of programming daily, within a couple of years EWTN was reaching 60,000 homes. In 1993, the company started WEWN, the largest private shortwave station in the world. Mother Angelica says the archangel Michael appeared to her on a hilltop in Irondale and told her to build the station, which was financed by Dutch billionaire Piet Derksen. Three years later, Angelica launched her radio ministry, the same year the TV network began worldwide broadcasts.

One of the most popular programs is “Mother Angelica Live,” with Angelica as a talk show host. She has angered more than a few of the faithful with her bluntly honest opinions. Butting heads with Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, she openly disagreed with his interpretation of Christ’s literal presence in the Eucharist. She eventually offered a grudging apology, but Mahoney continued to criticize her, going so far as unsuccessfully requesting that the Vatican reprimand her.

Mother Angelica gives all credit to the Lord. She laughs over the fact that she knew nothing about broadcasting when she pursued the vision that God gave her. She surmises in one of her typically cryptic pronouncements: “I think if you are ignorant enough, the Lord helps you out or you wind up in jail.” &