Cloistered nuns on television are without doubt the most ridiculous things that could happen. It just evolved.”
I don’t know what my ratings are. I just don’t think the Lord went around counting heads. One time He lost everybody. When He announced the Eucharist, He lost everybody. Then He looked at His apostles and said, Are you going to go away too? He wasn’t afraid to blow it all.”–Mother Angelica in a 60 Minutes Interview with Morley Shafer, 1984
Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, who founded the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, and the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, EWTN, Eternal Word Television Network, and who built the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, died Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.
The first time I saw Mother Angelica was on a video that I borrowed from the library at Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, some time after I moved to “Silicon Valley” in 1989 from Minneapolis to work at Sun Microsystems. One of the parishioners had recorded an appearance by the church’s saintly pastor, Father John. J. Sweeny, on the “Mother Angelica Live Show.” I knew that Mother Angelica founded a Catholic TV network called EWTN, that you could get it on cable, but I didn’t know anything else about her, and I never had watched EWTN before.
The show with Father Sweeny in it had probably aired some time in the late 1980s. My first impression was that Mother Angelica was an odd character for a media celebrity. She was a chubby old nun even back then, still wearing a habit (actually, a big plus in my mind, because it counteracted the memories of other Franciscan sisters I’d seen at a retreat house one time, who were “dancing the gifts” of bread and wine up to the altar wearing sweat shirts and blue jeans). On that show and on every other show I saw her in, Mother Angelica wore oversize glasses.
She was constantly sniffing her ever-running nose and swallowing. She wheezed a bit. She frequently paused to take sips from a big mug. She even seemed to burp, quietly, from time to time. She has been quoted as saying she took a lot of Maalox.
She didn’t quite seem to be on top of the conversation that night. Father Sweeny started to tell the story of how he was assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Peace Church in 1969, about how he built a church and shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the outskirts of Santa Clara in the middle of pear orchards, and how the city had grown up around him with high-tech companies and hotels surrounding the thriving church.
Mother innocently derailed Father Sweeny’s story by lamenting about building projects that eat up agricultural land, and his story never really got back on track. He had a lot of stories he could have told that night, about how he instituted Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist in 1976, how the church and even the rectory living room were full of homeless statues that other parishes had thrown out, how the parish attracted people who loved the reverence of the Masses there and the old devotions, the rosary processions, and the novenas, who lined up for hours at the confessionals that were open before every Mass, and who knelt happily to receive Communion, from priests only with servers holding gold patens, at the altar rails.
There they were, I thought watching the show, these two obviously saintly people who loved the same things about the Church, mild Father Sweeny and brash Mother Angelica, but who were not quite able to make a connection.
I don’t think Father Sweeny ever got around to telling the part of his story about how he planned to build a giant aluminum statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the shrine, and how when the diocese made him shorten it to 32 feet, he then made up the difference but putting the statue on a 12 foot knoll near the church between the Yahoo headquarters building and highway 101. An image of the statue on its knoll did flash on the EWTN screen for a few moments during the show. Commuters can still see that statue of Our Lady with her motherly arms held out towards them on their way to and from work every day, although dear Father Sweeny has long since died and Yahoo has moved somewhere else.
About Mother Angelica’s quirkiness, I thought, maybe she was having a bad night. But then, as I was writing this, I glanced at a video clip playing in a browser in another window on my computer which I’ve tuned to EWTN–where they are remembering Mother Angelica in non-stop programming. Mother was about 40 in the clip I caught just now, and she said, “If you go in front of the camera and can only say, ‘Ahh, ahh!’ in the Spirit, somebody out there’s going to love it.” That maybe was the clue I needed to understand her appeal.
She didn’t need to be a smooth professional. Since 1978, she had been doing the same thing. She knew all she had to do was obey her Spouse, get herself from the cloister to the studio on time, pray with all the staff before she went onstage for the unscripted show, trust the Spirit, and be her authentic Jesus-loving and people-loving self, in sickness and in health. In brisk middle age and tottering old age, she kept it up. And millions of somebodies out there did love it.
She kept on drawing souls to Christ and to the Church, even after a stroke in the year 2001 led to her having to wear an patch over one eye and left her with a twisted mouth and slurred speech. I just read a testimony today where a man tuned into EWTN to mock the comical looking “pirate nun” but ended up secretly listening to what she had to say instead. Eventually, he was led by what he heard from her to a complete conversion and healing of his heart and his life.
Like Pope John Paul II was doing at that point in his life during those years, she kept appearing in public even as age and disability deformed her. She only stopped appearing in public after another stroke on Christmas Eve of 2001 eventually took away her ability to speak.
Flash forward a few years from Father Sweeny’s appearance in EWTN. Before Father Sweeny’s death, one of his parishioners from Our Lady of Peace became a priest and professed member of the men’s foundation that Mother founded, and Father Sweeny attended the young Thai man’s ordination and profession. I saw Father Miguel Marie Soeherman today on EWTN officiating at the Divine Mercy chaplet that was prayed for Mother Angelica.
The World Wide Scope of Mother Angelica’s Network
In the fall of 2005, I got first-hand experience of the reach of EWTN, even though I still had never watched another show. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with three priests as spiritual directors, and of them was Father Joseph Mary Wolfe from EWTN, who I came to respect immensely. I learned from Father Joseph that he had started at EWTN as an engineer in 1985 and that two years later after much cajoling from Mother Angelica, and even though, as he said, he had other plans, he became the first religious member of MFVA, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, a clerical association of men that Mother Angelica founded to serve the network and her monastery of cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration.
Below left: Fr. Joseph wearing the habit designed by Mother Angelica with an embroidered monstrance on the front, waiting at the Holy Sepulchre. Below middle: Fr. Joseph in Elijah’s cave. Below right: Fr. Joseph in the Amsterdam train station (facing away from the camera) with his matching back pack.
During a layover in the Amsterdam airport on our way to Israel, Father Joseph was recognized by a Filipino couple who were also passing through, and they asked me to take a photo of them with him. Later in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, I was moved by seeing some beleaguered Palestinian Catholics, who were suffering even back then, who eagerly came up to talk with Father Joseph Mary because they recognized him from the network. “What did they say to you?” I asked Father Joseph later. He said that they told him with great emotion, “EWTN gives us hope.”
One day months later I sent a letter to Deacon Bill Steltemeir, chairman of EWTN. I mentioned in my letter that I had started watching EWTN after my Israeli pilgrimage that previous November where I met Father Joseph. And, I added, Father Joseph was such a good pure priest, I started watching EWTN to see if I could see more of him.
You have to know this about Deacon Bill (who died in 2013), he was quite a teaser. Deacon Bill wrote me back, and he mentioned that when he repeated to Father Joseph what I had written about him being such a good pure priest, that Father Joseph blushed!
Father Joseph attended Mother Angelica during the last three days of her life from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and gave her Extreme Unction and the Apostolic Blessing before she died. She had a sharp sense of humor, so I think she wouldn’t mind if I mention that the Apostolic Blessing at the time of death is sometimes referred to as the “Get Out of Purgatory Free” Blessing, because it takes away all the remaining temporal punishment due to sin. I pray I can get me one of those blessings when the time comes.
Mother Angelica Becomes a Role Model for Raymond Arroyo, and for Me
At the EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Conference that I attended in San Francisco a few months after my Israel pilgrimage, on January 28, 2006, Raymond Arroyo, EWTN News Director, gave a side-splitting talk about his experiences writing his best-selling biography of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. Most people are familiar with his more-staid delivery when he’s announcing the news on EWTN. The San Francisco audience was practically rolling in the aisles in reaction to his much-more-relaxed comedic delivery at the conference that day.
I found Arroyo after his talk ended in a “Meet the Author” booth signing books. I told him, “People are saying you’re a riot, Raymond.”
“Well, I caused a few,” he replied.
When Arroyo signed my copy of the book, he added below his signature, “May you find strength and inspiration herein.”
I actually did find both strength and inspiration therein. Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica is one of those books that can change your life. What was especially moving to me was that Mother Angelica’s life story was yet another reaffirmation of the truth that if God wants a work to be done, He gives the ones He calls whatever power they need to accomplish His work.
Most of her life Mother Angelica had been plagued with disabilities. She was in pain most of the time. She’d been cured from a serious stomach ailment as a young woman, but she continually had serious asthma. She wore a back brace. Until her legs were miraculously cured on January 29, 1998, she wore braces on both legs and walked with crutches.
She didn’t have much of an education. She would tell people that God asked everyone else to do His work, and they all said no, so she was the bottom of the barrel. She endearingly called herself a dodo.
“God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Raymond Arroyo’s talk about her biography at the EWTN 25th anniversary conference had some serious moments too, when he exhorted all of us to live 1 Corinthians 1:27:
“Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote the first encyclical about the nature of love. . . . It’s the primordial creative power that moves the universe. . . . Mother Angelica harnessed some of that energy. . . . . Mother Angelica said, ‘I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes.’ . . . Every major thing that God wanted her to do was preceded by suffering. . . . . When she started the network, she was 58 years old. She had diabetes. A twisted spine. . . . . You pay the cost to be the boss. . . . . She was following inspiration and the dictates of her spouse. . . . The struggle. The cross. That’s her real story. Her life has become a parable. She wanted to reach people. . . . She did what she did for love of souls, It was never about TV. For God’s sake, be a dodo!”
I was sixty when I heard that, a mere two years older than Mother Angelica had been when she started EWTN. I started to suspect that God wasn’t finished with me yet either.
It’s One Long Purification
A few months later I interviewed Raymond Arroyo by phone for National Catholic Register, but then the editor sat on the finished interview for so long that I eventually published it at San Francisco Faith newspaper. During my phone interview with Arroyo, true to form he had me in stitches. Partway through the hour an hour and a half interview, my son walked into my office to see what was going on, because I was laughing so hard. I recorded the interview, and I remember that when I was later transcribing it, I would start laughing all over again.
I can’t provide a link to the published article any more, because the archive is no longer available. So I posted the interview as I submitted it before it was edited here. The final title was “It’s One Long Purification: What Mother Angelica Taught Raymond Arroyo.”
Between mid-August and early September of 2005, Raymond Arroyo and his family had endured a dizzying variety of life changing events. First came a blessed event, the birth of the Arroyos’ third child and first daughter, Mariella. And less than two weeks later Arroyo and his family got swept into a disaster of cosmic proportions when Hurricane Katrina hit their home in a New Orleans’ suburb.
On Friday night, August 26, 2005, Arroyo was rendered sleepless and restless by a premonition, and on Saturday, August 27, Arroyo and his wife, Rebecca, grabbed everything they could fit into their car, took their ten day old baby girl, sons Alexander, 6, and Lorenzo, 2, and his mother-in-law, and fled. As he put it, they got out of Dodge. When Katrina hit Louisiana against all predictions and everyone else started evacuating, the Arroyo family was long gone. Everything they had left behind was swept away.
The string of stressors continued. As Arroyo later told the story at the EWTN 25th anniversary family celebration, Doubleday had lined up a string of talk show appearances in New York in conjunction with the release of his biography of Mother Angelica on September 6, but breaking news bumped Arroyo off the shows. The book seemed doomed.
Then Doubleday called at the end of the week to tell him that the book had, somehow, made it to the New York Times Bestseller list without Arroyo being able promote it, and the book stayed on for four weeks. “”Four weeks,” Arroyo exclaimed. “A book about a nun!”
When reporters talked with him in September, Arroyo was thanking Mother Angelica, both for taking them into a guest house at her monastery after they lost their home and for life lessons that helped him make it through it all. Here are a few questions and answers from my interview with him:
Q: You’re having to keep up with your role as the news director and anchor on “The World Over Live,” also traveling to promote the book, while starting your life over from scratch. How are you juggling it all?
A: I’m living in Mother Angelica’s present moment. She had this idea, don’t cling to yesterday. Don’t concern yourself with tomorrow. Just live in the moment that God is calling you to right now.
It’s a cute idea. [He laughs.] But practicing it is difficult . . .. You do learn to do it though. It’s sound advice. I will tell you. It has really gotten me through this whole period. There is so much coming at me between special events in Rome, the weekly live show, a cycle of illness in our home. Rebecca lost a grandmother . . ..
All of this while the book inexplicably went forward. It is still doing what it’s supposed to do. But we’re all paying the price here.
Q: You wrote about how when Deacon Bill Steltemeir first saw Mother Angelica, he started hearing “Until the day you die” every day for a month until he drove down from Tennessee to see her. Was there anything like that with you?
A: Nothing quite like that. I came to do a profile on Mother in 1995. Early in ‘96, she asked me to start a news operation. “It’ll be good for your soul.”
My wife and I were ready. I was covering politics at the time. I was in news. I was a journalist. I was a writer. I wanted to use those gifts to uplift people and to challenge them and to talk about something that was lasting. Politics is a shifting animal, it’s like sand. Yesterday’s hot story is tomorrow’s has been. It’s brittle. It’s brittle. It’s temporary It’s ephemeral. I wanted something that was more lasting. People are far more interesting.
Q: You write and speak a lot about Mother Angelica’s life as a parable that shows that God can do great things through you if you cooperate with Him.
A: If you are open to where He’s taking you to. In Mother’s life also you see these great illnesses and sufferings that presaged any major growth for the network. That’s what happens in all our lives. You go through purging experiences, whether they be illness or loss of a loved one or some traumatic event—like the loss of a house.
It prepares you for the next thing He wants of you. It’s a horrible time. Horrific. If you have the faith to cling to the bark like a little baby, if you keep walking, there is this great thing ahead. You have to go through this because you’re not ready for it.
Q: Would you have had those thoughts before you came to EWTN ten years ago?
A: No. Mother was right. I came down and joined the network, and it was good for me spiritually.
How God-Incidence (Not Co-incidence) Brought Me to Alabama To See For Myself the Mighty Works of Jesus and His Dodo
Like the proverbial thunderbolt from the heavens a few months later, the acquisition of the computer company where I worked in the San Francisco Bay Area by a company in Alabama made it easy for me to go to see for myself the network and a basilica Mother Angelica had built.
The basilica came into being this way. After the network was thriving, Mother Angelica bought a large amount of property seventy five miles north of EWTN in a much more rural area to build a quieter monastery, and she planned also to build what she called a farm chapel. Her plans changed when she had a vision of the Child Jesus, and He told her to build Him a temple.
Mother Angelica heard the words that gave her a new mission: to build a shrine honoring the True Presence of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Five families gave almost-unlimited amounts of money for her to realize that vision, and fifty million dollars later, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament was the result.
One morning I went to work at my latest technical writing job at Cyclades in Fremont, CA. A hand-written sign taped to the window on the parking lot entrance said to go to a nearby Holiday Inn meeting room, where we found out Cyclades had been purchased by Avocent, a company in Alabama.
As I drove home that day, I was figuratively shaking my head and thinking, you never know when you wake up in the morning what new directions your life might be heading towards. The Avocent tech writing management flew us writers out to Huntsville a few times for training. Both times I stayed over the weekend before flying back, and I drove down to visit EWTN’s campus near Birmingham and the temple Mother Angelica built out in the Alabama countryside in Hanceville.
While I was in Huntsville during the training, my loquacious Tennesee-born boss talked of many things. One of the things he mentioned one time was this weird Alabama TV station with a nun talking on it. Then he looked at me and stopped himself. I had told him my plans to go to EWTN that weekend, but he had forgotten.
Before I went to the TV studio and the basilica for the first time, I detoured to a chant workshop in Auburn, AL. The director of the Gregorian chant and polyphony choir I sang in at the time in Palo Alto, Professor William Mahrt, is president of CMAA; I had attended a couple of the inspiring CMAA Sacred Music Colloquia, and so I was impressed to discover three CMAA bigwigs would be training local people to sing Gregorian chant and polyphony in an ugly little 50s-built church in that small college town in Alabama. As it turned out two of the big-wigs were choir directors in that little church.
On another one of the weekends I was there, I attended another EWTN family gathering in a convention center in Birmingham. My letter to Deacon Bill Steltemeir, which I mentioned earlier, included a photo I took of him taking photos of the audience members who had clustered around the stage at the Birmingham convention center. I was later able to work with Deacon Bill to arrange for Professor Mahrt to be interviewed about the importance of chant and polyphony on Father Mitch Pacwa’s “EWTN Live” show. It took a while to get on the schedule, but Prof. Mahrt appeared on December 12, 2007. (You can listen to an audio file of that show here.)
Audience of One at the World Over Live Show
Even though the front entrance to the TV studio in Irondale was shut up tight when I got there and nobody answered my persistent knocking, I decided to look around for another way in. I drove around the back of the building, and I caught a woman going in a back door to work on Arroyo’s news show, “The World Over Live.” She agreed to take my card to Raymond. He told them to let me in and find me a seat, so I was happily able to finagle my way in to see his show as an audience of one, a year before Arroyo moved the show to D.C. and started having live audiences.
The Temple in the Alabama Countryside
When I drove to the basilica seventy-five miles north the next day, I began to think that I might be on a roll and that I might be able to get to meet Mother Angelica, even though she was no longer active at the network after a major stroke in 2001. It was quite an experience after driving miles and miles on Alabama country roads lined with white split-rail fences to finally come upon the Romanesque-Gothic Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament basilica facing a spacious open piazza. It looks like a 13th century basilica from the time of St. Francis built in the middle of a beautiful stretch of nowhere.
This video captures what the drive was like.
I ran after Deacon Steltemeir after he served at a service at the shrine, and I introduced myself. He recognized me because I’d also sent him the photo of Arroyo squeezing my hand at the book signing. When I told Deacon Bill of my hopes to see Mother Angelica, he told me she was mostly bedridden, and she might appear only occasionally behind the cloister grill at Mass. When I was at Mass, I couldn’t make out individual faces behind the grill, so she might have been there.
In any case, the glorious works she had brought about in seeking to serve her Spouse were all there for anyone to see in that basilica built with nothing but the best, with jasper and other precious marble and stained glass, an ornate bronze altar rail, and row upon row of mahogany pews with kneelers all facing the altar. Other impressive sights in the main church were the gold reredos, and the gold eight-foot high monstrance, the second-biggest monstrance in the world, which is mounted over the altar. The tabernacle looks like a miniature temple itself, gilded with 24 carat gold, and its inside back wall is encrusted with diamonds, where Mother Angelica insisted they be placed, where only Jesus can see them!
Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica.”—John L. Allen Jr. “We won’t look on the likes of Mother Angelica again.” Oh, come now. Let’s not forget, for example, St. Teresa of Avila, another cloistered nun who established many religious foundations of both men and women and made lasting contributions to her culture and to the Church. We don’t need a committee to promote this phenomena, I don’t think. It seems to me that God raises up saints of both sexes when they are needed to help save the Church and to help save us all.