Mother Angelica (1923-2016), a Franciscan nun, was the founder of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), located in Irondale, Jefferson County, and the founder of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament located in Cullman County.
Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, on April 20, 1923. Her father, John Rizzo, was a tailor who abandoned his family when Rita was five years old. Her mother, Mae, worked as a dry cleaner. After her parents formally divorced in 1929, Rita and her mother struggled with poverty. Her life took a dramatic turn, however, in 1944, when she joined the Order of Poor Clares against her mother's wishes and assumed the name Sister Mary Angelica. After nine years as a novitiate, Angelica took her final solemn vows in 1953 at Sancta Clara Monastery in Ohio. While there, she was inspired by the early civil rights movement to establish a religious community that would appeal to southern African Americans, who generally did not belong to the Catholic Church. She began writing letters to potential dioceses in hope for support.
In 1957, Sister Mary Angelica found a backer in Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen, head of the Archdiocese of Mobile, who encouraged her to establish a Franciscan order in Birmingham. Excited at the prospect, Angelica turned her attention to financing the project. Angelica and the Poor Clares who supported her efforts were creative and persistent in their fundraising. In 1959, they began assembling and selling fishing lures to raise money for their new monastery. Called St. Peter's Fishing Lures, the initiative gradually grew into a profitable venture, and by 1961 the nuns were able to purchase a small two-bedroom house and an adjacent 15 acres of land in the Birmingham suburb of Irondale for $13,000. A year later, on May 20, 1962, after securing large private contributions from individuals and organizations in the Birmingham area, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery was publicly dedicated by Archbishop Toolen.
Mother Angelica was known among Catholics and other religious communities in Birmingham as a gifted and down-to-earth teacher. She initiated a series of discussions called parlor talks at the monastery in 1962, and she also recorded lessons on Christian living that were offered for sale as 45-rpm records. In the early 1970s, Bishop Joseph Vath of Birmingham convinced Mother Angelica to begin lecturing outside the cloister. Her success with the public led to a regular Sunday-morning taped radio broadcast called Journey into Scripture. Comfortable with her abilities to communicate with the lay public, Mother Angelica published her first book, Journey into Prayer, in 1972. She followed with other publications, and by the mid-1970s the monastery was printing, packaging, and shipping her popular writings. By 1976, Mother Angelica had written more than 50 booklets and recorded some 150 instructional audiocassettes.
In the late 1970s Mother Angelica began videotaping her teaching for television, and in 1981 she spearheaded a movement to form the non-profit EWTN corporation. Headquartered in Birmingham, EWTN grew to bring Mother Angelica to a global audience as the host of the highly successful television program Mother Angelica Live. She also served as chair and CEO of the network.
Her impressive achievements were not free from controversy, however. At the height of her popularity in the 1990s, she frequently rebuked what she deemed Catholic misuse of the reforms of Vatican II. She also feuded with members of the American Church hierarchy, whom she considered too liberal. In 1997, she publicly questioned the sacramental views of Cardinal Roger Mahoney of California. Her fiery rhetoric drew a swift rebuke from some U.S. Catholic Church leaders, who accused her of overreacting and encouraging discord in the church. Detractors labeled Mother Angelica a fundamentalist and a contrarian, but supporters cheered her public critiques of liberalism in the Church.
On a trip to Colombia, South America, in 1995, Mother Angelica visited the shrine of the Divine Child in Bogotá. There, she experienced a vision in which she claimed a child's voice told her to build a temple and that she and those who helped her would be blessed. She returned to Birmingham convinced that God intended her to build a temple shrine and monastery that could serve as a place of pilgrimage and worship in the United States. An initial private donation of $1 million launched the project. She never raised money for the monastery on the air, but five separate families and a private foundation donated a total of $48.6 million in support. In 1999, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament was consecrated in Hanceville, in Cullman County.
On September 5, 2001 Mother Angelica suffered a severe stroke that left her physically debilitated. The following year on March 17, 2002, she resigned as CEO and chair of the board at EWTN. Mother Angelica died on March 27, 2016, in Hanceville and was buried in a crypt in the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Poor Clare nuns continue to make Hanceville their home, and EWTN continues broadcasting from Irondale.
Arroyo, Raymond. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Lopez, Kathryn Jean. "Mother Angelica's Empire of the Airwaves." Crisis 19 (July-August 2001): 12-17.
Neuhaus, Richard John. "The Case of the Uppity Nun." First Things 83 (May 1990): 63-79.