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Mother Angelica, the 'Mrs. Fixit' of Catholicism
God's TV Co-Host
Nun overcomes adversity to found network
By Shannon Mullen, Staff Writer
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/27/05

In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sounds for a moment like a modern-day financial adviser.

"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' "

The passage, at first glance, seems to affirm the importance of prudent financial planning. But as Mother Angelica, the earthy founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, might say, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Her way, as chronicled by Raymond Arroyo in his revealing new behind-the-scenes biography, "Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and Network of Miracles," is something she calls "the theology of risk." In essence, it means trusting God to come through in the clutch.

"My attitude is, if the Lord inspires me to do something, I attempt to do it," Mother Angelica explained. "Money is His problem. Working for His kingdom is mine."

Like a tightrope walker clinging to a pole, Mother Angelica has held fast to that conviction throughout a life of ever bolder undertakings.

Arroyo has witnessed this holy high-wire act up close. As the news director of EWTN and the host of its weekly news magazine, "The World Over," he doesn't claim impartiality, though his book is not an "authorized" biography. In "Mother Angelica," Arroyo's insider status adds more than it detracts, and he shows himself to be an even-handed, deeply sourced journalist and a fine storyteller.

He has a doozy of a tale to tell. Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, the girl who became Mother Angelica was abandoned by her father and raised in poverty by a possessive, mentally unstable mother who was a source of both love and private pain for her daughter, who also had to contend with a cavalcade of health calamities.

The sudden healing of one of those ailments, attributed to the intercession of St. Therese, set a streetwise Rita on a path to a religious vocation. After entering a cloistered Franciscan community of nuns in Ohio, then-Sister Angelica felt called to establish a new contemplative community in the still segregated Deep South. Her ambitious goal is realized, in part with seed money she and her fellow sisters earned through the sale of homemade fishing lures (another of Angelica's brainstorms).

Once ensconced in the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., the nuns switched from fishing lures to roasted peanuts to audio-cassette recording to book publishing to sustain their monastery. Then, in 1978, inspiration struck Mother Angelica again, this time during a visit to a television studio in Chicago.

"Lord, I've gotta have one of these," she whispered in prayer, recognizing what a potent evangelization tool TV could be.

With just $200 and no business plan whatsoever, Mother Angelica began building her tower, which would have a satellite dish attached to it pointing toward the heavens. Never mind that a television network would cost millions. When the fancy cameras and other pricey equipment Mother Angelica purchased on faith alone began to arrive, she and her sisters prayed all the harder. Again and again, large donations would arrive in the nick of time, days or even hours before EWTN would have been permanently knocked off the air.

Though the network would continuously teeter on the brink of collapse, Mother Angelica kept thinking big. She started a worldwide shortwave radio network, launched an AM/FM radio network, built a grandiose shrine and founded two new religious orders, the Franciscan Friars of the Eternal World and the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word.

"Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous," she said.

Along the way, despite crippling health problems, Mother Angelica became one of the most recognizeable faces on television, hosting a weekly live talk show that featured her very traditional take on Catholic morality and her seat of the pants musings on the problems of the world.

Every good tale needs conflict and there is plenty in "Mother Angelica." Irked by her orthodoxy, her independence and her widespread popularity, the more liberal-leaning American Catholic bishops have, over the years, gone to sometimes eyebrow-raising lengths to undermine her. For a time, the bishops operated a competing Catholic television network, but Mother Angelica outplayed, outwitted and outlasted them.

Today, EWTN is the largest religious media network in the world. The television network Mother Angelica started in a converted garage is now available to more than 118 million households in 127 countries. EWTN also offers programming via Sirius satellite radio and MP3 podcasts.

Soon after Arroyo concluded his final interview with Mother Angelica, she suffered a major stroke and has endured myriad health crises since then. Today, Arroyo writes, the 82-year-old abbess lives out of public view behind the iron grill of her cloistered monastery, witnessing her faith through silent suffering.

It was, after all, suffering and sacrifice, not budgeting, that Jesus was referring to in Luke's Gospel when he speaks of the need to "count the cost." For in the verse that precedes his reference to tower building, Jesus says, "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple," a theme that runs through the story of Mother Angelica's remarkable life.

"This is for all time, until Gabriel blows his horn," she said in 1987 when she threw the switch to make EWTN a 24-hour network. "And maybe we'll get him on camera blowing it."