EWTN Foundress and her "First Daughter" Celebrate Milestones in Religious Life
First came the miracle. Then, 70 years ago this August 15th [71 years as of 2015] she laid the foundation for all that would follow. While millions of people glory in EWTN, the international broadcast empire Mother Mary Angelica built—the one that has brought hope and healing to those inside and outside of the Catholic Church for more than thirty years—few appreciate that it all stands on a decision made by Angelica when she was twenty-one years of age.
Among the many impressive traits of Mother Mary Angelica, her willingness to embrace risk and even suffer in her pursuit of God's Will has always stood out. Seventy years ago this week, Rita Rizzo, a vivacious, wounded girl from a broken home took a step that would change the course of church history and alter the direction of millions of lives. She got there by fearlessly following the inspiration of the present moment.
In 1943, a desperate Rita visited a local mystic, Rhoda Wise, in search of a cure for a painful stomach ailment that made it difficult for the girl to consume food. The mystic advised the young woman to pray a nine-day novena for a healing. As I recounted in my biography, Mother Angelica The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles, exactly nine days later the pain dissolved and Rita could suddenly eat anything she desired. She earnestly believed the healing to be miraculous. "When the Lord came in and healed me...I had a whole different attitude," Mother Angelica told me. "I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. I didn't know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus."
Rita soon began spending time near the mystic that had reignited her faith, a woman who reportedly conversed with Jesus during painful ecstasies. In short order Rita felt the call to religious life and surreptitiously began visiting convents. Eventually, she would enter a cloistered, Poor Clare community in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 15, 1944. Fearful of a showdown with her paranoid and emotionally fragile mother, Rita quietly boarded a bus bound for Cleveland, informing her mother to her whereabouts by letter.
"I thought, 'Well, Lord, this is where you want me, this is where I'm going'," Mother later confided.
That trusting acceptance of her calling and the decisive action that followed would become hallmarks of Mother's long religious life. She didn't know exactly where God was leading her that summer of 1944. But she went just the same. In the years that followed whether it was the call to start a monastery to bring racial healing to the deep south; the call to establish the first Catholic cable network in a Birmingham suburb; or the prompting to build a shortwave radio network, she zealously dove into each inspiration with everything she had.
A few years after arriving in Birmingham, Mother Angelica welcomed a young vocation to the cloister. Jo Ann Magro, a local girl of Italian stock, would become Angelica's "first daughter." Curiously, she was born the same year Mother entered religious life. Known today as Sr. Mary Regina, she too celebrates a milestone this year: fifty years of religious life beside Mother Angelica. For those five decades she has obediently pursued her Mother's example; tending the gardens of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, offering daily prayer to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and more recently caring for the woman she has long called "Mother."
Surrounded by her sisters, at 91 years of age, Mother Angelica continues to live out her religious vocation in a silence more pronounced than she might have imagined all those decades ago. Back in 1945, after one of her visions, Rhoda Wise, the mystic of Canton, Ohio sent a message to the newly veiled Sr. Angelica. "Tell Rita," she wrote, "every little worry will be erased from her heart. For each insult, each heartache, more stars."
Considering the heartache Mother Angelica has endured throughout these pain-inflected seventy years of religious life, it must be consoling for her to see the copious "stars" on all sides. Mother's outsized projects, her nuns, the lives of the many laity she has touched over the years still burn brightly. And in a hushed solitude, so does she.
Raymond Arroyo is Mother Angelica's biographer and host of The World Over Live on EWTN.
On August 15, 2015, Mother Mary Angelica celebrates her 71st Anniversary of Religious Life, Sr. Michael our Mother Vicar her 64th, and Sr. Mary Regina her 51st Anniversary. Please remember Mother and Sr. Regina in your prayers.