How Mother Angelica, Rabble-Rousing Nun, Changed Television

Becket Fund images

Of course Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday. It’s only fitting that one of the world’s most prominent modern-day Disciples of Christ would pass away on the holiest of days in the Christian calendar.

But Mother Angelica leaves behind an epic legacy, one whose cultural impact is only growing: the largest religious media network in the world. Mother Angelica started Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) over 30 years ago out of a converted garage in Birmingham, Alabama. EWTN now encompasses a lot more than TV; the media company she built has a monumental global presence on the Internet, on radio, and in print, reaching 230 million homes in over 144 counties.

Getting to that point was not easy. Mother Angelica grew up in poverty. After her father abandoned her and her mother, they struggled to put food on the table in a low-income immigrant neighborhood. She found her way to a convent, where she eventually saw what many people are only catching on to today: If you want to impact the culture, you cannot discount the power of the screen. To Mother Angelica, though a cloistered nun who lived in a small community of women largely cut-off from the outside world, television was an untapped resource for reaching people in their everyday lives.

So she set to work convincing an industry that was not especially keen on religion, and not particularly rife with cloistered nuns, to give her some airtime. That was not easy either. As she once wryly joked: “Being a woman in this business is not easy. Being a nun is even worse.”

She started airing a program with a CBS affiliate, but when the station planned to air a film she found offensive, she told producers to pull it or she was out. They chose the movie. And like so many American entrepreneurs before her, Mother Angelica chose to take a risk and do her own thing. And thus EWTN was born.

Arguably EWTN’s biggest impact was in the way it normalized religious practice. It pioneered the idea of the filmed Mass, and its shows give viewers the experience of sitting with a priest or nun in your living room and talking about life. Even my Protestant friends have admitted to watching Mother Angelica growing up; she was feisty and kind at the same time. Like a good mom, she was always there. You could be flipping channels and somehow always pass by her smiling face, bestowing some wisdom or witticism. EWTN made the Catholic faith feel inviting and accessible to millions, and its tremendous success is a testament to the continued relevance of religion in modern life.

But Mother Angelica died with unfinished business. EWTN is a plaintiff in the largest religious liberty lawsuit in American history. Her company was one of the first to sue when the Obama administration came out with the HHS mandate that made employers, despite religious beliefs, pay for and provide things like abortion drugs in their healthcare plans. It would seem obvious that a Catholic media company can’t give employees goods and services that violate the same views their airwaves are devoted to opposing at every turn, but not to the Obama administration.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the same pro-bono law firm that defended the Little Sisters of the Poor at the Supreme Court last week, also represents EWTN. The fate of EWTN hinges on the fate of the Little Sisters. If they lose, they face paying tens of millions of dollars a year if they refuse to comply.

But though a loyal daughter of the Church, Mother Angelica was not always compliant. She once humorously remarked, “Cloistered nuns in television is one of the most ridiculous things that could ever happen.” TIME magazine saw it differently when itcalled Mother Angelica “an improbable superstar of religious broadcasting and arguably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.”

Indeed, Mother Angelica obliterates the notion that Catholic women are voiceless, or that nuns are somehow a disenfranchised part of the Church with no influence. As Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia put it, Mother Angelica “succeeded at a task the nation’s bishops themselves couldn’t achieve.”

Mother Angelica, rabble-rouser, innovator, bold woman of God, rest in peace.

This article first appeared on on Tuesday, March 29.

Ashley McGuire is co-founder of altFem Magazine.

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