Report

How a Nun Turned a Monastery Garage into a Global Catholic News Network

By | September 5, 2013

(AP Photo/Eternal Word Television Network, Hugh Hunter-HO)

(AP Photo/Eternal Word Television Network, Hugh Hunter-HO)

In March of 1978, a 55-year-old cloistered nun named Mother Angelica went to Chicago. She was there to give workshops to supporters who would distribute her Catholic books and tapes. She had started making spiritual recordings in 1962, after one of the nuns in her community suggested she “record a ‘little heart to heart talk.’” The sisters sold the records to help pay the bills at their Franciscan monastery in Irondale, Alabama. While in Chicago, Mother Angelica visited a Baptist-run television station, and reportedly said, “Lord, I gotta have one of those.”

Mother Angelica began to recognize the power of media to spread her message. In the spring of 1978, her first TV pilot, which addressed the story of the loaves and fishes, aired on the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN), founded by Pat Robertson. To raise the $60,000 needed to produce 60 more episodes, Mother Angelica returned to the speaking circuit. During one appearance, she told an enthusiastic audience of 4,000: “For too long the TV tube has been in the hands of the enemy.”

Less than a year later, Mother Angelica was vowing to build her own television studio. The CBS affiliate where she taped her shows planned to broadcast a miniseries that cast doubt on Jesus’ divinity—content that she found blasphemous. When they refused to cancel the show, she cut ties and the sisters in her cloister, part of the order of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, suggested they convert the monastery’s garage to a studio. For the next few years, she recorded programs that ran on CBN and other outlets while raising money for her own satellite station. She got help from televangelist Jim Bakker. He built her first TV set: a powder blue living room with framed paintings of Jesus and the pope on the walls.  

By the spring of 1980, Mother Angelica not only had her own television studio—she had formed her own network, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). During its launch on August 15, 1981, EWTN was on the air for four hours, reaching 300,000 cable television subscribers. The first broadcast featured “Mother Angelica Presents,” with a live audience; a documentary on the Shroud of Turin; a rerun of Catholic cleric Fulton Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living”; an interview with Mother Teresa; and a Russian dance festival hosted by Orson Welles. “We’re after the man in the pew, the woman who is suffering from heartache, the child who is lonely,” Mother Angelica told The New York Times in 1981.

Today, 33 years after its launch, EWTN broadcasts 24 hours a day in 140 countries, reaching a potential 228 million homes. It’s also on the radio and the Internet, and in 2011 it bought an independent newspaper, the conservative-leaning National Catholic Register. The commercial-free, not-for-profit network, still based in Irondale, Alabama, employs nearly 330 people and produces 80 percent of its own content. In 2011, it raised more than $36 million in contributions and ended that year with more than $40 million in assets.

On September 3, EWTN launched its latest foray: a Washington, D.C.-based Catholic news program. EWTN took shape as the American Catholic Church was responding to the evangelizing call of Vatican II. Now, it’s starting a daily news show in the U.S. capital to try to influence public policy, just as issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom are debated anew in Catholic circles and beyond. The show continues Mother Angelica’s pattern of embracing new technology to reach Catholics. Determined to share her brand of Catholicism with the public—orthodox, but practical, with a dose of humor—Mother Angelica has used a combination of charm and arm-twisting to build the network into the worldwide Catholic news leader. 

 

MOTHER ANGELICA WAS BORN Rita Antoinette Rizzo in the industrial community of Canton, Ohio, in 1923. Her father abandoned the family when she was young, and her parents divorced when she was 6. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, who suffered from depression. After a visit in 1944 to St. Paul’s Shrine in Cleveland, Rizzo entered the contemplative, cloistered Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. She was invested as a Poor Clare nun on November 8, 1945, and received the name Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. She was soon assigned to a Poor Clare community in Canton, and on January 3, 1953, Sister Angelica professed her vows of lifelong poverty, chastity, and obedience.

She struggled with health problems all her life. A 1953 accident in the monastery left her with lifelong back and leg pain. The night before an operation to ease the pain from the accident, Sister Mary Angelica promised God that if she could walk after treatment, she would start a monastery in the South. Inspired by the civil rights movement, her intention was to create a cloistered community for black women. In creating the monastery she envisioned, she showed her instincts for promotion early; when fundraising, she and the nuns earned $11,000 from fishing lures that they made on an assembly line. In 1962, two years after Sister Angelica became Mother Angelica, she and four sisters established Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale.

The seeds for her media ministry began with informal discussion groups she held at the monastery. In 1971, she received formal permission from church leaders to offer “parlor talks,” despite her status as a cloistered nun. In two-hour sessions, she would discuss Scripture with Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, and others. “Giving this class, I realized how little people knew,” she said, according to an account in Raymond Arroyo’s 2005 biography of her. “I learned from those women that they didn’t understand the spiritual life: how to live like Jesus, like the saints did. Then the Catholics came along, and they didn’t know Scriptures, but they knew the sacraments, which should have been enough. But they could never grasp it and bring it into their hearts and live it.” She felt called, Arroyo wrote, “to help the laity ‘live the Gospel’ and develop an interior life.”

The direct missionary work to blacks in Birmingham never materialized, as Mother Angelica spent much of her time giving public lectures and the monastery’s energies turned to evangelizing through television. The garage that served as a television studio was expanded to house EWTN. The cubicles where the nuns once slept were converted to offices, and in 1999, the nuns moved to a new monastery an hour away, in Hanceville, Alabama. Mother Angelica financed the gleaming, state-of-the-art network and the Hanceville monastery through fundraising and private donations. A brick and tile company donated materials, and she talked a group of bricklayers, masons, and ditch diggers into building a grotto to the Virgin Mary. She convinced the Poor Clares to lend her $25,000. The sisters sold peanuts, rosaries, and charcoal drawings and sent monthly letters seeking donations. They bought printing equipment and published Mother Angelica’s books to sell.

“Mother Angelica had this philosophy about starting: If she believed God wanted to start a project, she would start it even if she didn’t have the money,” Gary Zimak said. He’s trying to do the same thing after Mother Angelica inspired him to pursue a full-time career as an evangelist. Zimak, of Cinnaminson, New Jersey, worked 30 years as a computer programmer and project manager before getting laid off in 2012; now he often appears as guest on EWTN shows, while also running an Internet radio show and speaking at parishes.

The Rev. Joseph Mary Wolfe met Mother Angelica in 1985, when he was 26. Wolfe, then an engineer for General Electric Medical Systems, was watching EWTN in Dubuque, Iowa, when the show disappeared from the screen. When the program resumed, Mother Angelica said, “As you can see, we need an engineer.” He wrote to her and soon joined EWTN’s staff. “On her live show, Mother would talk about growing in your spiritual life. What does God want for you? What is God’s will?” Wolfe recalled. “She had such faith. She went forth not knowing how to do it. She went forth with faith. She stepped forward to see if God would bless it and keep opening doors.”  

EWTN has not been without its internal scandals. In recent years, several priests have left the network after becoming involved with women and choosing to leave the priesthood. The organization has also grappled with the Catholic sex abuse crisis on-air, but not always well. In an August 27, 2012, interview with the National Catholic Register, the Rev. Benedict Groeschel, host of EWTN’s Sunday Night Prime television show, made unchallenged comments interpreted as blaming victims of priestly sexual abuse. “In a lot of the cases, the youngster—14, 16, 18—is the seducer,” he said. Two weeks later, Groeschel stepped down from his EWTN post, and his comments have been described as out of character and the possible result of disordered thinking caused by a stroke.

Mother Angelica, with her pioneering ways, stirred her own controversies. She loved traditional church practices and believed they would bring people to God. EWTN describes its mission as “teaching the truth as defined by the magesterium of the Roman Catholic Church, in keeping with the Holy Father’s call for a New Evangelization ” She had dabbled in the charismatic movement but found it shallow. She opposed women’s ordination and, in the 1970s, spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment. She was furious when the network broadcast the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver and a woman portrayed Christ in the Stations of the Cross. “I’m tired of being pushed in corners,” she said on a live show. “I’m tired of your inclusive language that refuses to admit that the son of God is a man! I’m tired of your tricks. … I am so tired of you, liberal church in America.”

After that outburst, Mother Angelica revived the more traditional Franciscan habit for her community. She restored pre-Vatican II practices such as the stating of faults and strict silence in the cloister. On air, she criticized inclusive language, female altar services, and the decline in Catholic education. Her zeal for orthodoxy was almost her undoing in 1997, when she criticized Cardinal Roger Mahony,* then archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for being soft on the teaching of transubstantiation in a pastoral letter on the Eucharist. Mahony interpreted her comments as heresy, setting in motion a feud that threatened the network. After another dispute with a bishop, in late 1999, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the monastery. Before that visitation report was complete, Mother Angelica resigned as CEO and chairman of the board of EWTN, leaving the organization a civil corporation run by lay people. She succeeded in keeping the network independent of ecclesiastical oversight; despite the network’s adherence to church teachings, it has no formal relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

 

THE ELECTION OF POPE FRANCIS in March and World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July provided opportunities for EWTN to showcase its unrivaled strength: 24-hour coverage of high-profile Catholic events. “There isn’t anything quite like it,” said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture. “No official church organ is as effective. It’s trying to be a Catholic oasis in the middle of American television in the way evangelical televangelists did.” Mother Angelica and EWTN spur easy comparisons to Archbishop Sheen, the well-known Catholic radio and television personality in the 1930s to 1960s. (His television shows remain an EWTN staple.) He was the first Catholic media figure in an era when Catholics still faced skepticism and prejudice. “His prominence had an impact on introducing Catholicism to American and making it less marginal,” Hoover said. “EWTN presents itself as the Catholic view. Sheen didn’t do that.”

As EWTN creates a presence in Washington, it is following Mother Angelica’s efforts to provide the Catholic view as a counterpoint to secularism. The network will have a front row seat for developments on issues such as the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. In June 2012, EWTN sued the federal government over the mandate, saying it was willing to pay a “fine on faith” rather than violate its principles. In March, a U.S. District Court judge in Birmingham dismissed the lawsuit, because the government had promised to revise the mandate. EWTN responded to the June 28 revision as inadequate and said the network would continue to fight the mandate.

The new show, “EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell,” will air live for 30 minutes at 6 p.m. eastern and be rebroadcast at 9 p.m. eastern. The show will run weekly at first. Former BBC producer David Kerr is executive producer, and the network has hired a staff of about 20 for the new space it’s renting across from CNN’s bureau near Capitol Hill. Carroll Campbell, already a regular on EWTN, is a veteran journalist, who worked as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

As the first show opened, Carroll Campbell stood on a modern, silver and blue set before taking her seat, with the U.S. Capitol visible in the window behind her. The inaugural show included three stories on Syria; three on the HHS contraception mandate; and others on immigration reform, an upcoming Supreme Court case on prayer at public meetings, Vatican business, and a report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The show followed the format of a traditional newscast: the anchor introduced stories, some pre-recorded, and interviewed guests. Reporters gave segments, including one from Rome. Experts were interviewed from Georgetown University, the Hudson Institute, and the Pew Research Center. A slick, energetic promo for the show featured the anchor in the back of a cab, scrolling through a computer tablet, a smart phone on her lap. “We’ll ask the questions that others don’t. We’ll cover the stories that others won’t,” Carroll Campbell said.

It’s news presented by people who understand the church and the teachings of the church, said Michael P. Warsaw, president and chief executive of EWTN. “Reporting about the church or issues of importance to the church often show a lack of understanding, not malicious, on where the church is coming from. The mission of EWTN is to report the teachings of the church in its fullness.” The premiere highlighted public policy issues likely to find their way on the show: abortion, immigration, and economic issues. But “EWTN News Nightly,” with its religious undertones, treads closer to political advocacy than news. Warsaw concedes EWTN hopes its new show changes minds. “We’re not lobbying. We’re not a think tank. This puts us squarely in the mix,” he said. “Hopefully, it will have a direct effect on the opinion of policymakers.”

With Catholics representing about 25 percent of U.S. population, a lot is at stake as EWTN tries to influence that audience. EWTN is among the most popular Catholic-related websites, with about 800,000 U.S. visitors per month, according to Quantcast. About 1 in 10 Catholics—equivalent to about 5.2 million Catholic adults—watched the television channel at least once in the six months prior to being surveyed, according to research from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Greg Erlandson, president of the Catholic Press Association and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic newspaper, will be watching EWTN’s new show with interest. “The trick will be to be an independent Catholic voice, not the Republican Party at prayer.” Erlandson said. “I don’t know what that will look like.” But the show needs to reach beyond the cliché of the older, Catholic woman watching Mother Angelica say the rosary to the younger, engaged Catholics.

Timothy T. O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, a Catholic school in Front Royal, Virginia, has appeared on EWTN shows since the 1980s. He admires Mother Angelica’s efforts at evangelization. “Vatican II really called for people to be involved in social interaction and media,” he said. “There’s so much the church has to say: a pro-life message with love, a preferential option for the poor, the joy of being Christian.” A Washington presence continues EWTN’s mission, he said: “Faith impacts culture. Christianity is not just a set of creeds. It’s a way of life. It’s a radical life of conversion.”

Mother Angelica no longer makes appearances on EWTN, but she is undeniably still the face of the network, with her image and name appearing on the website’s home page, with a plea to “Remember to keep us between your gas and electric bill.” Her shows continue to be rebroadcasted. In 2001, she suffered two major strokes and has been bedridden and unable to speak for several years. On April 20 of this year, EWTN marked her 90th birthday with 90 hours of programming and several 90-minute specials. “She was one of the greatest communicators in the church,” Sister Marie St. John, one of 40 nuns who live with Mother Angelica, told the Birmingham News in April. As EWTN begins its foray into the political arena, a frequent phrase from Mother Angelica guides them: “Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach.”

*Correction: The article originally misspelled the name of Cardinal Roger Mahony. 

Renée K. Gadoua is a writer and editor living in Syracuse, New York. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.

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