April 20, 1923 – March 27, 2016
NEW YORK – Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, a cloistered Franciscan nun and media entrepreneur who founded the largest Roman Catholic television network in the country, and used it to criticize liberalizing trends in the Catholic Church, died Sunday. She was 92.
The cause was complications from a stroke, according to a statement posted online by the Eternal World Television Network, the media organization she founded.
Angelica launched the Eternal Word Television Network in 1981 with $200, a makeshift studio in a monastery’s garage in Irondale, Ala., and one on-air personality, herself.
By the time she retired in 2001 after a series of debilitating strokes, her homespun half-hour program of advice and commentary, “Mother Angelica Live,” was the anchor of a 24-hour Catholic programming network reaching more than 100 million homes in the United States, South America, Africa and Europe.
In a YouTube video announcing her death, Raymond Arroyo, managing editor of EWTN News and a biographer of Angelica, said she was the only woman in television history to found and lead a cable network for 20 years.
A 1995 Time magazine profile called her “an improbable superstar of religious broadcasting and arguably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.”
“Mother Angelica succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a member of EWTN’s board of governors, said in the network’s statement. “She founded and grew a network that appealed to everyday Catholics, understood their needs and fed their spirits. She had a lot of help, obviously, but that was part of her genius.”
She answered viewers’ questions at a leisurely, sigh-punctuated pace that accommodated the long digressions that became her trademark: She wisecracked about nuns, once describing the ones who taught her in parochial school as “the meanest people on God’s Earth.” She dispensed religious opinions sometimes at odds with Vatican policy. She lectured teens on fornication, bishops on theology. And at her most passionate, she launched attacks on feminists and other liberals she saw as undermining the authority of the church.
It was a television style that made her irresistible to traditionalist Catholics, who never warmed to American church leaders’ efforts to demystify rituals and nudge congregations toward greater social engagement. That audience contributed generously to her enterprise, donating what the National Catholic Reporter estimated at $25 million annually in 1994.
Angelica’s outspokenness on church issues – her pet peeves were gender-neutral language in the liturgy and a change allowing girls to become altar servers – made her both friends and enemies among the Catholic faithful.
It also brought her into conflict with members of the church hierarchy.
In 1993, when a World Youth Day event in Denver featured a woman playing the role of Jesus Christ in a Passion play, she called it “blasphemous,” and delivered a litany of complaints during her show about what she called the “ungodly” influence liberals were having on the church. “I am so tired of you, liberal church in America,” she said. “I resent you pushing your anti-Catholic, ungodly ways upon the masses of this country.”
A more significant clash occurred in 1997, when Angelica criticized Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles for proposing changes in the sacrament of Holy Communion that she viewed as a breach of core church doctrine. “I’m afraid my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero,” she said. “And I hope everybody else’s in that diocese is zero.”
Mahoney demanded an apology and a retraction of her call for disobedience. He received a grudging apology, which Angelica then obscured with a long on-air explication of her complaint.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the Cross of Honor for distinguished service. It is the highest award a pope can give to a member of the laity, the term by which the church defines everyone except ordained priests.
Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio, the only child of John and Mae Rizzo. Her father abandoned the family when she was 5, and she spent much of her early life plagued by an array of stomach ailments. In 1943, she claimed to be cured by a Catholic faith healer, marking the beginning of her interest in a religious vocation, according to a 2007 biography written by Arroyo, “Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.”
After taking vows as a member of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, a contemplative order of Franciscan nuns in Canton, another physical ailment – a spinal injury suffered in a fall, followed by two years of chronic pain – led her to promise to build a new monastery if cured. Her prayers answered, she set off in 1962 with four other sisters of her order to start Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, in Irondale, a place with almost no Catholics.
There, Angelica began writing booklets and recording audio cassette tapes to introduce Catholicism to her new neighbors.
When a local television station gave her a half-hour of airtime, her on-camera charisma attracted Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which began airing her show on its satellite network.
– New York Times