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The Triumph of Rita Rizzo
By Father John McCloskey
Monday, November 07, 2005
Spero News

How did Rita Rizzo, the sickly girl who, with only a high school diploma, fights her way out of poverty and single handedly creates the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the largest religious broadcasting empire in the world – succeed where all the bishops of the United States (and several millionaires had failed)?

This new biography by Raymond Arroyo comes closer than anyone has yet done to explaining Mother Angelica – The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles (Doubleday, 2005, $23.95). It is a welcome sign of the burgeoning Catholic book market's coming of age when a prestigious house such as Doubleday picks up this biography and heavily markets it.

Arroyo is well known to many of our readers. He is host and creator of "The World Over Live" on EWTN, and has a solid resume in network and cable television. This book is based on exclusive interviews conducted in the years before Mother Angelica's incapacitating strokes, and is full of surprising insights into her life, both interior and exterior.

As Arroyo puts it, "One evening before shooting her live show, she gave me but one instruction, which has haunted me to this day: 'Make sure you present the real me. There is nothing worse than a book that sugarcoats the truth and ducks the humanity of the person. I wish you 40 years in purgatory if you do that!'" Based on my reading, Raymond need not worry about the Calabresan curse of the extra 40 years. Arroyo says: "I have written a book that does not avoid controversy or the seeming contradictions inherent in Mother Angelica's character: the cloistered contemplative nun who speaks to the world; the independent rule breaker who is derided as a 'rigid' conservative; the wisecracking comedian who suffers near constant pain; the Poor Clare nun who runs a multimillion-dollar corporation."

The first part of the book discloses the early life of Rita Rizzo, an only child from a severely dysfunctional family in a poor Italian neighborhood in eastern Ohio. Her father was an absent good-for-nothing, her mother hysterical and dependent upon Rita's mothering. In her late teens, the religiously unmotivated Rita encounters a questionable mystic/stigmatic who discerns her vocation and encourages her entry into a Poor Clare Monastery in Cleveland, against severe family opposition. In this account of her rather dismal early years, Arroyo uncovers only one hint of great things to come, captured in a photograph of the young Rita Rizzo prancing with "sass and spunk" as the first female majorette at McKinley High in 1939. You can almost hear "If They Could See Me Now" in the background. This woman was born to lead, but who could have imagined what God had in store for her?

Several years' work follows high school, and then the cloister swallows her up as a bride of Christ. Before long, she enters the forge of intense physical suffering that continues to this day. Accompanying that suffering is schooling in contemplative prayer, and out of the two comes what can only be described as the "miracle" of EWTN and the splendid Poor Clare monastery she founded in the middle of the Bible Belt. How Flannery O'Connor, America's greatest Catholic storyteller, and a daughter of the Deep South, would have enjoyed all of this.

The story of Sister Angelica's time in the monastery in Cleveland and then later in nearby Canton, Ohio, is full of the reality of community life, reminiscent of St. Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul. Someone with the temperament and personality of Angelica (perhaps not the most apt religious name for her) would naturally clash with some of her fellow sisters and superiors.

Eventually her good and kind nature, combined with her high intelligence and valuable practical skills picked up in the working world, enabled her to make her final vows, after some close calls along the way. Then came the special call.

When facing surgery that might lead to permanent paralysis, "In the darkened room, with only her fears, Sister Angelica panicked, 'Will I be in a chair for the rest of my life? On crutches? Crippled?' The nun thought to herself. She tried praying her beads, hoping that repeated pleas to the Virgin would calm her. Caught between prayer and frenzy, clawing at her sheets, Angelica struck an outrageous bargain with God, "Lord, if you let me walk again, I'll build you a monastery in the South,' she pledged.'

Her original intention was to "do all in my power to promote a cloistered community among the Negroes. It would be dedicated to the Negro apostolate by prayer, adoration, sacrifice, and union with God. It would ceaselessly make reparation for all the insults and persecution the Negro race suffers, and implore God's blessings and graces upon a people dear to the Heart of God."

This was written in a letter in 1957. Strangely enough, Mother and her sisters never developed any special apostolate with African-Americans. Her original motivation simply seems to have been God's way of putting the monastery in position for even greater evangelizing possibilities, ultimately extending to almost every nation and race.

It took several years and inter-monastery competition plus initial opposition from her bishop before Mother finally moved to Birmingham, Ala., where her well-laid plans for the monastery ran into the inevitable roadblock facing all great founders, religious or secular – an enormous lack of funds.

But through that recurring necessity to bankroll her ever more ambitious projects, Mother Angelica's talents both as a communicator and well, businesswoman, were put on display. She gave dozens of talks in the community and later throughout the country to all types of audiences, Jewish and Protestant included, speaking of the needs of her monastery and preaching the Gospel. This migrated into a book-and-tape business that eventually led her into television.

In the early days, she supplemented contributions with a business selling fishing lures (inevitably named after that great fisher of men, St. Peter) and a roasted peanut business, until direct contributions were sufficient to maintain the monastery.

Throughout his book, Arroyo relates as unsensationally as possible anecdotes of last-minute reprieves from crushing debts, mortgages about to be called in, enormous bills that must be paid. Time after time, an unexpected check arrives, a chance acquaintance turns out to be a millionaire, a foundation forgives a loan to save the day.

Unbelievers will label this coincidence; believers will recognize divine favor; the more credulous will call them miracles. The book is full of them. This woman depended totally on God's providence and the intercession of her favorite saints. And they could not turn her down.

A key moment in her story is a fateful trip to Chicago during which she visited "Channel 38, a Baptist-run television station atop a Chicago skyscraper." There she encountered her first television studio.

'Lord, I got to have one of these," Angelica whispered in a private prayer. Then almost as soon as it was out, she hesitated. "What would 12 nuns do with this? I'm a cloistered nun, and I don't know anything about television." After being told the studio "only" cost $950,000, she said, "Is that all? I want one of these.'

Following chapters tell of her early efforts to establish EWTN, making her monastery the first religious community to ever obtain a FCC license to transmit. Along with the key supporting cast of Ginny Dominick and present Chief Executive Officer Bill Steltemeier, who provided programming and legal help, she confronted the three big problems of any communications company: finding funds to finance operations, content to actually put on the air, and distribution (eventually her reach would extend to virtually the whole world).

In the beginning, funding came from loans and contributions, from deep-pocketed contributors, banks, and foundations. For a long time, Mother Angelica resisted asking for money on the air, trusting in providence, a la Mother Teresa. Finally, she began slipping in a modest request to her viewers each week at the end of her live program. Over time, her watchers have responded with millions of dollars – enough to finance not only current expenses but also the purchase of satellite dishes that beamed her signal from Birmingham to satellites circling the Earth, thus multiplying her audience to the whole world and emancipating her from sole reliance on cable for distribution.

The content grew from several hours a day to its current 24/7 broadcasting. At first, she borrowed old movies, wholesome sitcoms, and Fulton Sheen tapes. Now EWTN runs five "live" shows in the evening and dozens of television series, produced in and out of her studio, starring noted Catholics such as Scott Hahn, Father George Rutler, and most notably Father Benedict Groeschel.

One of the adjectives most often used to describe Mother is "feisty," and Arroyo does not shrink from revealing that side of her at length and in depth. Well-known and not so well-known contretemps with bishops, cardinals, elements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even some of her staff and financial backers, are recounted fairly and judiciously.

I will let you read the stories on your own, but I think you can guess who generally comes out on top. There is a reason why Lee Iacocca calls Mother Angelica "a woman who may well be the patron saint of CEOs" and Tom Monahan says she is "one of the great entrepreneurs of all time." And all of this without benefit of a MBA.

In all of her vicissitudes, she had one very important backer – John Paul II, who showed her many signs of favor in the face of her difficulties both within and without the Church. Indeed, she is the outstanding example of a person who ran with John Paul II's exhortation to carry out the New Evangelization to the ends of the Earth. Arguably, she and John Paul II proclaimed the Gospel truth to more people than any two people in history.

He last met her in Rome in 1996, where she showed her plans and a "foot print" of her satellites that were already transmitting to South America and that would soon reach into Europe, Russia and China. The Pope then pronounced for all to hear, "Mother Angelica, weak in body, strong in spirit, strong woman, courageous woman, charismatic woman!"

For a woman who spent three hours daily in Eucharistic adoration, and who was rejected by her own father, these words were a confirmation of her life-long venture of faith.

The book ends with a showdown in which Mother faces down her board, insisting that her new monastery and shrine be seen as completely separate from EWTN, thus constituting EWTN as the secular and lay-run enterprise she intended. She then resigns as CEO and retires to her new monastery and Eucharistic Shrine of the Child Jesus, surrounded by dozens of young vocations, to finish her days in prayer with her sisters before entering into eternal life.

Raymond Arroyo has written the book only he could write as an intimate friend of Mother Angelica. However, he has written more than a book – and he knows it. He has written a screenplay. Get ready for "Mother Angelica: the Movie." (Perhaps Arroyo will prevail upon his friend Mel Gibson to direct it!)

And I would not be surprised if this book is already on file in the Congregation of Saints in Rome. Just in case it's needed.

First appeared in National Catholic Register: Oct. 23-29, 2005

Father C. John McCloskey, III, STD is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Father McCloskey's articles have been published in major Catholic and secular periodicals, including Catholic World Report, Crisis Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, National Catholic Register, Washington Times, the New York Times, and ACEPRENSA. The writings of Father McCloskey are collected at Catholicity, and reprint permission has been granted to Spero News.