Mother Angelica and the Pain of Providence

The asthma was back. The heavy coughing that convulses her body beneath the habit, the tightening of the chest, the drowning struggle to pull in another gasp of air—still Mother Mary Angelica was determined to make her show.

With potentially forty-one million households counting on her, she couldn’t stay in bed. As host of the twice-weekly, Mother Angelica Live, foundress of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and CEO of the Eternal Word Television Network, the 72-year-old abbess keeps a relentless schedule. Tonight God would provide a little relief.

Mother’s righthand man and president of EWTN Deacon Bill Steltemeier darts into the studio minutes before show time. With a smile that could make a Cheshire cat jealous and considerable Southern charm, he begins recruiting from the audience.

“Father,” he drawls at an unsuspecting priest, “Mother’s asthma is acting up again; you’re going to have to shoulder the show for her.” A joyous smile split Steltemeier’s face, completing the fiat.

Before Father Robert Levis (a guest on Mother Angelica Live the night before) can formulate an excuse, he is surrounded by a cadre of makeup people, set masters, and technicians bent on beating the clock. Prepared or no, Father Levis is cohost of the show. Steltemeier began praying the rosary in the chair next to me.

“It’s divine providence: divine providence that Father was here just when Mother needed him,” an audience regular informs me. Divine providence is taken very seriously in these parts.

Two minutes before show time Mother enters the studio. Despite two aluminum crutches and a brace that runs from the middle of her back to the sole of her foot, she maneuvers with amazing agility. “Hello and where are you from?” she says quietly, greeting the adoring flock. The voice is a soft whisper, not at all the voice of a woman capable of sending shock waves through Catholic liberals everywhere. Everything about the woman is unexpected. Where you would expect to find vaudevillian humor and a brassy edge, you find tenderness and caring. And though the humor is there, it camouflages an intense holiness and deep devotion to God that television fails to extract. Mother captivates everyone she touches (and she touches quite regularly!) with a warm handshake that lingers into a hand hold. While the subject of her attention is held by the soft face peering out from the traditional Franciscan habit, Mother’s deep brown eyes seem to penetrate the very soul of the recipient: searching, scanning, registering the intentions and motivations of the speaker. It feels like it could go on forever.

“One minute till air, Mother.”

“OK, let’s get on with it,” the feisty foundress answers, gently removing herself from the audience.

Within minutes the crutches are whisked away, the audience is laughing, Mother is talking to millions, and Steltemeier has only begun the second decade of the rosary. No one would ever know the severity or the constancy of pain Mother Angelica carries with her—always.

Pain and God’s divine providence are no strangers to Mother Angelica. Indeed they are the lifeblood of EWTN. A way of life for Rita Rizzo.

Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1923 to John and Mae Rizzo, Mother Angelica learned early about pain and disappointment. After her father abandoned them, Rita and Mae struggled to keep a failing dry cleaning business afloat in their Italian neighborhood. They worked diligently, sacrificing the comforts of life, to say nothing of Rita’s childhood. “I can’t honestly say I had a real childhood,” Mother Angelica remembers. “I was unhappy and very lonely. That had an effect on me.”

The stigma of divorce, endless cold nights in rat-infested apartments, and her mother’s suicidal depression took its toll on Rita. And though neither mother nor daughter regularly attended Mass, Mother Angelica says they had a “deep reverence for God” and trust in his “wondrous grace” during the darkest moments. Her first brush with that grace came one day while walking in downtown Canton. As she crossed a busy intersection, Rita found herself in the path of a speeding car. Unable to move, she closed her eyes, bracing for the impact. When she opened them she was standing on the sidewalk, unharmed. Mother Angelica says she was lifted through the air out of harm’s way: a fact supported by eyewitnesses. Both Rita and Mae Rizzo attributed the intervention to God.

Rita Rizzo’s first taste of divine providence would kindle a deep religious devotion within the girl. But it was the pain to come that would perfect her devotion and draw her even closer to Christ.

In 1938 Rita suffered with ever-increasing abdominal pain; the diagnosis was intestinal difficulties. By 1941 the pain was crushing. On the advice of a holy woman, Rita earnestly began a nine-day novena asking for the intercession of St. Teresa the Little Flower. At the conclusion of the novena, Rita found herself completely healed, with no reoccurring symptoms. Mother Angelica has said, “That was the day I found God and really began to pray in an entirely new way.”

Rita Rizzo would never be the same. Daily, she began to pray the Stations of the Cross at St. Anthony’s Church. “That was the only way to express my sympathy for the Lord,” she says. It is interesting that of all the devotions of the Church, Rita would choose a meditation dedicated to the torturous pains endured by Christ on his road to victory. It was as if God was preparing Rita for a mystical, painful intimacy.

During one of her sojourns to St. Anthony’s, kneeling before Our Lady of Sorrows, the impossible happened. “When I knelt I just knew it, I just knew it. I was to be a nun,” Mother Angelica says. The girl who called nuns “the meanest people I ever met” was on her way to the cloister.

Directed by a local monsignor, Rita joined the Poor Glares, a contemplative order dedicated to adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Rita’s mother was not told of her daughter’s decision until she was in the cloister, and even then, she hated the idea. A distance would remain between mother and daughter for years to come.

Brimming with enthusiasm, Rita Rizzo was reborn in the personage of Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. She threw herself into prayer and work, expecting to spend her life behind the walls of the cloister. But God had other plans: pain and divine providence were beginning their dance once again.

Cleaning floors at the monastery was commonplace for Sister Angelica; this day she was using a heavy floor scrubber. It was a mundane activity that would alter her life and the lives of millions the world over.

As she maneuvered the clumsy machine across the floor, Sister Angelica slipped on the suds, losing control of the scrubber. As she struggled to her feet the heavy machine spun around, pinning her against the wall. Her spine took the brunt of the accident. Doctors were uncertain she would ever walk again. Laying on a hospital bed, uncertain of her future, Sister Angelica struck an outrageous bargain with God: “Lord, if you allow me to walk again I will build a monastery to your glory,” she pleaded. “And I will build it in the South.”

In time Sister Angelica was up and walking with the help of a leg brace and a crutch. True to her word, she began selling fishing lures to raise revenue for the monastery in the South. After writing to several bishops for an invitation to establish a monastery, Sister Angelica received word from the bishop of Birmingham, Alabama. “Ya’ll come,” the bishop’s letter read.

Without hesitation Mother Angelica and a small band of nuns headed to Irondale, Alabama, to establish a Catholic stronghold in the heavily Protestant region. (Only 2.5 percent of the population of the diocese is Catholic even today.) Joining the sisters was a most unlikely extern: Sister Mary David, from Canton, Ohio. Like St. Clare, whose mother, Ortolana, joined her order as a sister; Mae Rizzo joined Mother Angelica’s order in 1961, taking the name Mary David. “I became her superior. How do you like that?” Mother Angelica recalls with a mischievous grin. “I called her sister and she called ME Mother!” A new religious family that only God could have devised was taking shape.

As mother of the fledgling flock, Angelica would give extemporaneous lessons to the sisters on the lives of the saints, scripture, or whatever the spirit led her to speak about. So inspiring were the talks they soon made their way into little books, printed by the sisters. Requests for the books came from all over the country, and Mother was soon a hot commodity on the lecture circuit.

Armed with St. Clare’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and the evangelical zeal of St. Francis, Mother preached the gospel in unexpected ways: through audiocassettes, television interviews, and a video series for the Christian Broadcast Network. She reflected recently on the legacy Francis and Clare left behind and the effect it has had on her life and work: “The thing that attracts me [to Francis and Clare] is their absolute dependence on the providence of God. They saw him in all. And what they undertook was not planned by them, but through their love and detachment they fit into whatever was happening in the present.” So did Mother.

When the local station she contracted to film her video series decided to air a movie denying the resurrection of Christ, Mother was seized by the “present moment” and blew her top. She insisted that the station drop the movie, or she would walk. The station manager got nasty, threatening that she’d “be off television permanently” if she left. “I don’t need you, I only need God,” Mother fired back, “I will build my own studio, buy my own cameras, and tape my own shows.” The annunciation of EWTN was fast and furious.

Starting in a garage next to the monastery in 1981, EWTN has blossomed into the largest religious cable network in the world. Two constants remain fifteen years later, despite the enormous growth—Mother’s pain, and her total faith in divine providence. That dependence on the Lord in all matters has infected EWTN’s 180 employees as well, not all of whom are Catholic. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the EWTN staff is Protestant, but no less committed to Mother’s vision for the network and to her divinely inspired business approach.

“We don’t keep budgets here. Mother doesn’t believe in them,” EWTN Vice President of Marketing Marynell Ford (who happens to be a Protestant) told me. “Mother says, `Why limit God?’ If you budget forty thousand dollars and he gives you fifty thousand, isn’t that limiting God?”

In 1994 EWTN received more than $12 million in donations, not with telethons or outlandish promises of prosperity, but with a simple phrase Mother Angelica throws in from time to time at the end of her show: “. . . remember to keep us between the gas and the electric bill, bye now.” Miraculously, the funds are always there, keeping the $34 million network up and running, regardless of the expensive projects undertaken.

True to her motto: “Join us or get out of the way,” there is no shortage of projects. In August 1995, EWTN went international, reaching more than forty-two countries in Europe, Africa, and Central and South America with around-the-clock programming. Spanish translations of many EWTN programs were added to the lineup, and last October the network offered continuous coverage of the pope’s visit to the United States to every cable company in the country. Regardless of available funds, EWTN relies totally on God’s direction and trusts that He will provide.

“When it comes to making the big decisions, I do it.” Mother Angelica says. “I’m very adamant: once I realize that God wants something, I go for it and push everyone toward it. You have to respond to the will of God in the present moment. If God inspires you, you have to do it. Where most people go wrong is, they reason themselves out of what God wants, and they spoil what might have been.”

Mother Angelica’s fleet and immovable decisions are not mere caprice, but the result of four to five hours of daily prayer in the place many EWTN employees call “the powerhouse.”

Located in the epicenter of the EWTN complex is the monastery chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is enthroned in a silver monstrance of radiant delicacy. A partition separates the cloister from the public, with the Body of Christ visible from either side. At any time of the day the chapel is populated with employees on their side, sisters on the other, bent in adoration before the Lord. It is here Mother Angelica discerns the will of God for her sisters and for the network.

Such was the case in 1991, when, after telling Bill Steltemeier of her intention to retire from the network, a revelation came. During prayer Mother Angelica says the Lord told her that her work had only begun. Uncertain of how to proceed, she began meditating on scripture. A verse from the Book of Revelation led the way: “Then I saw another angel flying overhead, with the eternal good news to announce to those who dwell on earth, to every tribe, to every tongue.” (Rev. 14:6). Mother felt inspired to build a shortwave radio network capable of reaching the world. But where would she get the money for such an enormous undertaking? Divine providence was about to walk through the door. . . .

While standing in a hotel lobby in Rome, Mother was approached by Piet Derksen, a Dutch philanthropist eager to endow a large Catholic undertaking. Walking up to Mother he simply said, “You’re the one.” “I know,” responded Mother. Though they had never met before, Derksen would give EWTN $23 million to build the shortwave station on a mountain top near the network.

A familiar event preceded the 1992 opening. For nearly three months Mother Angelica would lay in a hospital bed suffering with severe asthma and bronchitis. The cough was so intense she broke a vertebra, rekindling her “sympathy for the sufferings of Jesus.” “The pain is a preparation and a protection for my soul,” Mother says, shifting in her chair. “Every time something happens [to me] the network moves further ahead; I’ll either get bad asthma or crush a vertebra. After my vocation the greatest thing God has given me are my braces and the pain. It makes me depend totally upon the Lord. I have no choice.”

Without pain pills or resentment Mother Angelica freely embraces the suffering, considering it a necessary price for progress, spiritually and otherwise.

“Mother’s pain is part of the plan,” Frank Phillips, vice president of the radio network, told me on our steep ascent to the short-wave station. Traveling up the gravel road in his pickup, Phillips turned to me with a knowing glint in this eye. “Just wait till you see this place.” As the fog rolled in around us, I couldn’t help recalling the psalm that reads: “Lord, bow down Thy heavens: touch the mountains and they shall smoke” (Ps. 144:5).

This is a mountain he has touched before. Run by former Navy Commander Frank Phillips, the “Mountain” (as the station is called) has the appearance of a well-run ship. The machinery needed to operate the four transmitters capable of beaming three separate broadcasts all over the world is staggering. No mom-and-pop operation, this—floors are gleaming, the unadorned corridors are spacious, and all about there is a precision and dedication normally restricted to the military. The only thing missing is the uniforms. And though much of the tight-knit staff is former military, don’t be fooled. Mother Angelica’s touch can be very strongly felt in every nook and cranny.

Rosaries hang in the stairwells, a magnificent statue of St. Jude peers down the administrative hallway, and mirroring the television network, an employee-built chapel housing the Blessed Sacrament is the center of the operation. Employees say it is more than coincidence that half the station is situated in St. Clare county, to say nothing of the antennae’s placement.

It is customary to place shortwave antennae in flat open fields, making it all the more peculiar that Mother Angelica should decide to place her antennae on a mountain top. According to Mother Angelica, St. Michael (the Archangel) appeared to her when she first visited the mountain. It is there, on the site where St. Michael’s appeared, that Mother would decide to erect the antennae. Flying in the face of all the experts, the antennae reach millions a day. But no one can explain just how. Even the British Broadcasting Company has sent a team of experts to try to unearth the reason. They are still baffled. The folks at EWTN have their own answer: divine providence.

Using every technological tool available, the evangelical work of EWTN is expanding. Within the last two months, Mother has found a home on the Internet and acquired a Catholic news wire. Formerly known as the Catholic Resource Network, EWTN On Line Services offers apologetics, church documents, and religious art to World Wide Web surfers. Covering events affecting the Church around the globe, EWTN’s news wire was created by Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, as an alternative to the Catholic News Service. Using the wire, Mother Angelica hopes to offer EWTN viewers a broadcast news program by the fall. Plans are also under way to make EWTN’s shortwave programming available on AM/FM stations throughout the United States.

Mother sees great significance in the unexpected growth and enormous reach of EWTN in recent months. “I think there might be a bigger reason: This network in all its forms is a supplement, but not a substitute to the Church. It has the power to pull people together and teach them about the sacraments; how to be holy in a world that is anything but.” Then turning prophetic Mother adds, “Over the next few years this network will be able to pull in the remnant.”

At the conclusion of morning Mass, I caught my last glimpse of Mother Angelica. As the partition separating us from the cloister was shut tight, she was struggling through the closing hymn with her sisters. Soon the chapel was vacant and the motorized cameras on the walls were still. From behind the partition a faint voice began reciting the Rosary. “The first glorious mystery: the Resurrection. Our Father Who Art in heaven. . . .” A guttural, painful cough interrupted the sisters’ recitation. “Thy kingdom come Thy will be done . . . .” Again the cough shattered the serenity. “. . . give us this day our daily bread.” Mother’s asthma was back. There in the shadow of the Blessed Sacrament, the Eternal Word himself, the spouse was again drawing near. The network was moving forward once more.

By

A longtime fixture at EWTN and the biographer of Mother Angelica, Raymond Arroyo resides in Northern Virginia with his wife Rebecca and their three children. He is currently working on a mystery series and an original musical.

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