Mother Angelica in th EWTN studio
Mother Angelica in the EWTN studio

Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.

You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:

101 books Gen Ys must read before they die

101 books Millennials must read before they die


Biographies of nuns tend to be a niche product. Their hagiographers struggle to make compelling reading out of lives spent immured in convents for readers other than pious Catholics. But Mother Angelica is different. If you don’t believe me, this is what Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO, has to say about Raymond Arroyo’s 2007 biography: “In this dramatic page-turner, Raymond Arroyo has captured the life and lessons of Mother Angelica, a woman who may well be the patron saint of CEOs. Buy this book and be inspired.” 

Mother Angelica was born as Rita Rizzo in 1923 in Canton, Ohio, a town of steel mills with heavy brown smoke belching out non-stop. She grew up in a red-light district among African-American and Italian immigrants, mobsters and female assassins.

Her parents were separated and she was an only child. Mae, her mother was possessive and depressive. She would later join Mother Angelica’s community and would be a thorn in her side. Her father John abandoned the family, only to come back later, contritely, into Mother Angelica’s life. Her cousin Joanne described her as ‘a child without a childhood’. She matured fast, having to nurse her mother from a very young age.

Rita was sickly from birth and, with only a high-school diploma, fought her way out of poverty, and no broadcasting experience, to create the largest religious broadcasting empire in the world. She did what American Catholic bishops had never managed to do. How?

Her rough background and her warmth and candour somehow enabled her to reach out to all types, including lawyers and philanthropists, whom she managed to infect with her optimism and daring. They also felt her basic humanity.

Her motto was “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous”. So having been tested by her religious superiors – they found her a wild horse, but worth taming – she was asked to set up a community in her hometown. There she came into her own. She had to teach herself practical skills and act as contractor of the new monastery.

Then she developed a spinal defect after a fall and made a bargain with God that if he enabled her to walk again she would build him a monastery in the South. And so she left for anti-Catholic Birmingham, Alabama, just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.

In the South she ‘discovered’ the Bible, and saw she had to get its message out there, where people were hungry for doctrinal certainties just as a period of restlessness and confusion was beginning in the wake of Vatican II.

Her real conversion came when she visited a Baptist television station in Chicago with a Nashville lawyer. After that, she never looked back. She had no money, no financial skills, no fund-raising experience, no knowledge of the law — but she did have faith in God and a good dose of ‘cheek’. She launched out and collected donations for a travelling control room, a trailer capable of recording her live talks and studio productions.  

She invested in low quality instruments hoping for a bargain but – but the supplier was out of stock and sent her the expensive ones for the same price. Even so, soon after her first Hitachi camera arrived she ran up debts of US$400,000, with no means of paying except the collections from her speaking engagements.

Nonetheless this nun thought big and decided to beam her programs by satellite, for which she needed a license and a lawyer. Seeing the name Corazzini, she went for a fellow Italian. And so in 1980 the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) was born; by 1995 it had spread to 42 countries.

This inspirational book amply portrays a life truly well lived. In the words of journalist and historian George Weigel, it is “a rattling good story of fear, faith, courage, and bulldog tenacity, beautifully told. The drama of Mother Angelica’s life is a powerful reminder that the extraordinary lies just beyond the ordinary–if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.