Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN, dies after long illness

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Desert Nuns react to passing of fellow Poor Clare

Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, died at age 92 March 27 at the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Hanceville, Ala. She is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy EWTN)
Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, died at age 92 March 27 at the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Hanceville, Ala. She is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy EWTN)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CNS) — Mother Angelica, PCPA, who founded the Eternal Word Television Network and turned it into one of the world’s largest religious media operations, died March 27 at age 92.

As the foundress and abbess of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, Mother Angelica also received some of the sisters who would go on to establish Our Lady of Solitude Monastery in Tonopah, affectionately known as the “Desert Nuns,” including Abbess Mother Marie Andre, Mother Vicar Sr. Marie St. Paul and Formation Directress Sr. Mary Fidelis, into the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.

“We all treasure happy memories of weekly formation lessons and daily interaction. She gave each of us our names and received our Vows — and we feel a debt of gratitude to her for instilling in us a great love for the religious life, the Scripture, and above all Eucharistic Adoration,” said Sr. Mary Fidelis.

Feisty and outspoken, she was a major controversial figure in the U.S. Church in the closing decades of the 20th century. At the same time, the international scope of EWTN’s media operations gave her a ready calling card at the Vatican.

She built the venture into a network that transmits programs 24 hours a day to more than 230 million homes in 144 countries via cable and other technologies. It broadcasts in English and several other languages.

Mother Angelica had been ill for years. She was operated on Dec. 24, 2001, in a Birmingham hospital to remove a blood clot in her brain after she suffered her second major stroke. It left her with partial paralysis and a speech impediment.

Last November, she was placed on a feeding tube as she continued to battle lingering effects of the strokes. In February, members of her religious order said she was in delicate condition and asked for prayers for her.

Mother Angelica died at Our Lady of Angels, where she “was surrounded by the prayers and love of her spiritual daughters, sons and dear friends,” said a statement from the Poor Clares.

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Memorial page and funeral info

Arizona’s ‘Desert nuns’ reflect on her life

Mother Angelica’s life in photos[/quote_box_center]

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said it was “an honor” to be among several bishops from throughout the country who concelebrated a funeral Mass for Mother Angelica April 1, which was broadcast live on EWTN.

“She certainly was chosen by God to bring the Good News of Christ to the whole world. It began by answering a call to begin a contemplative monastery in the state in the U.S. with the smallest percentage of Catholics (Alabama), so as to evangelize there through prayer and presence. By being faithful to that call, the Lord led her to do far more than she or anyone else could ever have imagined,” said Bishop Olmsted.

“While she readily recognized her own shortcomings, she knew that these never get in the way of God working miracles, if she had strong faith in Him,” he added. “And so it was that, day after day, she did little but significant things to bring the Gospel of Christ to others; and she ended up founding the largest Catholic communication system in the world, all for the glory of God and to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”

Following her funeral, Mother Angelica’s body was interred in the shrine’s Crypt Chapel.

“This is a sorrow-filled day for the entire EWTN family. Mother has always, and will always, personify EWTN, the network which she founded,” Michael P. Warsaw, chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

“In the face of sickness and long-suffering trials, Mother’s example of joy and prayerful perseverance exemplified the Franciscan spirit she held so dear. We thank God for Mother Angelica and for the gift of her extraordinary life,” he said. “Her accomplishments and legacies in evangelization throughout the world are nothing short of miraculous and can only be attributed to divine providence and her unwavering faithfulness to Our Lord.”

In this 2002 photo, Mother Angelica (left) takes poses with the future Mother Marie Andre, who was installed as the first abbess of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery in Tonopah last month. Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN in 1981, passed away on Easter Sunday, March 27. (Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery)
In this 2002 photo, Mother Angelica (left) takes poses with the future Mother Marie Andre, who was installed as the first abbess of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery in Tonopah last month. Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN in 1981, passed away on Easter Sunday, March 27. (Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery)

Mother Angelica was born April 20, 1923, as Rita Rizzo in an Italian neighborhood in Canton, Ohio. She described her childhood as rough. Her father abandoned the family when she was young and her parents eventually divorced. She lived with her mother and said their existence was marked by poverty.

“We lived in rat-infested apartments — our life was so hard. I was interested in survival so I didn’t do well in school. It’s hard when you’re hungry and cold to study,” she recalled in 1987.

In 1944, she joined her religious order and professed her solemn vows in Canton in 1953 as Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.

In 1962, she founded Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, a move she said was to fulfill a promise to Christ if she emerged from an operation able to walk. The operation was necessary after she slipped while using an electric scrubbing machine and was thrown against the wall, injuring her spine. After the operation, she used a leg brace.

“It was from her intense love of Our Eucharistic Lord that her work of evangelization flowed,” said Sr. Mary Fidelis. “Perhaps the world at large remembers her from the EWTN Live Shows, where her spunky sense of humor and humanity charmed both young and old alike. For me, though, my fondest memories are of Mother praying before the Lord — silent, childlike and so obviously aware of His Presence and in Communion.”

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross to Mother Angelica and Dcn. Bill Steltemeier, then-chairman of EWTN’s board of governors, for distinguished service to the Church. The cross, whose name is Latin for “for the Church and the pope,” is the highest papal honor that can be conferred on laypeople and clergy.

Mother Angelica was equally at home giving a scale model of her satellite dish to St. John Paul II or ruffling the feathers of high-ranking Church officials with whom she disagreed.

In 1990, EWTN canceled an exclusive contract to air programs produced by the U.S. bishops after disagreements over EWTN’s coverage of bishops’ conference meetings.

“Faith is having one foot on the ground and the other up in the air, waiting for the Lord to put the ground under it,” she once said of her hands-on approach to doing things.

In 1993, she termed “blasphemous” a Church-sponsored World Youth Day event during St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver because a mime troupe used a woman to portray Jesus in a dramatized Way of the Cross. She said the event showed the “destructive force” of the “liberal Church in America.”

Mother Angelica often said she accompanied her faith with a “theology of risk” that gave her the resolve to undertake large projects without any clear indication she would succeed.

“Faith is having one foot on the ground and the other up in the air, waiting for the Lord to put the ground under it,” she once said of her hands-on approach to doing things.

“We have lost the theology of risk and replaced it with a theology of assurance” that says “you have to know what’s going to happen before you embark on something new,” she said on another occasion.

Before starting EWTN, Mother Angelica wrote what she called “mini-books” on moral and inspirational themes. The popularity of the mini-books attracted media attention, and Mother Angelica began appearing on television talk shows. She said these appearances made her aware of the tremendous influence television has in spreading messages.

Prior to starting EWTN, Mother Angelica was renting studio space from a Birmingham television station to produce videotapes of her talks on religious issues for airing on the Christian Broadcasting Network. She broke the relationship with the network after it aired a movie she considered blasphemous.

With the support of her religious community, Mother Angelica began consulting with media experts about starting her own TV station, hatching the idea of EWTN. She was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission, and EWTN went on the air in August 1981.

She began with $200 and little knowledge about TV production. The operation started in a building meant to be a garage on the grounds of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery she headed in the Birmingham suburb of Irondale. Originally its daily programming of several hours was carried by three cable systems.

In 1992, Mother Angelica launched the short-wave EWTN Global Catholic Radio which broadcasts in English and Spanish. In 1996, EWTN started a satellite-delivered AM/FM radio network with programming also available for rebroadcast by local stations.

In 1998, Mother Angelica stepped down as the head of EWTN.

“Above everything else, Mother desired to fulfill God’s will. She witnessed to this day in and day out,” said Sr. Mary Fidelis.

Sr. Mary Fidelis recalled how even Mother Angelica’s frail condition, she reminded the sisters who would be establishing a PCPA foundation in the Diocese of Phoenix of the importance of “clinging to the will of the Father.”

“So here we are 10 years later, now fully autonomous, living our contemplative, Eucharistic life, and continually clinging to the will the God,” she said. “Founded as it is by her spiritual daughters, Our Lady of Solitude Monastery is certainly part of Mother Angelica’s legacy and we pray that we will continue to honor her through our hidden life of Adoration, intercession and contemplative evangelization.”

Tony Gutiérrez from The Catholic Sun contributed to this article.

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