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Mother Angelica, the feisty and indomitable nun who founded a Catholic media empire in the Deep South when Catholics were a small minority there, died today, Easter Sunday, around 5 p.m. She had suffered a long illness. She passed away at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, where she had resided since 1999. She was 92.
The news was announced by EWTN, the media network she founded.
Just weeks before Mother Angelica died, Pope Francis sent a personal greeting to her as he traveled to Cuba and Mexico. Alan Holdren, Rome correspondent for EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency, asked the pontiff to record a message to the ailing nun on Holdren’s cell phone as Francis greeted journalists on the papal flight.
“To Mother Angelica with my blessing,” the pope said. “And I ask you to pray for me; I need it. God bless you, Mother Angelica!”
In 2009, Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, awarded Mother Angelica the Cross of Honor for distinguished service to the Church. The medal, officially known as “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (literally “For the Church and the Pope”), is the highest honor that the pope can bestow upon laity and religious. She was honored with the medal along with Deacon R. William Steltemeier, then-chairman of EWTN’s board of governors, who was a long and close collaborator with Mother Angelica. Deacon Steltemeier, a successful Nashville attorney who left his law practice to join Mother Angelica with her fledgling television network, died in 2013.
Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, on April 20, 1923, she joined the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Canton at age 21. She later built a monastery in Alabama, in gratitude for a successful back operation following an accident.
In 1981, after an initial apostolate of publishing religious tracts, Mother Angelica — with a few hundred dollars in cash — launched the Eternal Word Television Network, initially broadcasting from her monastery’s garage. EWTN now transmits programming to more than 230 million homes in 144 countries and territories.
In an age when many religious orders were shedding traditional dress that dated back to the Middle Ages, Mother Angelica and her community reclaimed the garb in 1993, putting away their modified habits. Viewers saw a nun hosting a call-in talk show or leading an on-air Bible study while wearing a full-blown habit, covering everything but her face and hands.
That face was as expressive as Mother Angelica’s colorful language, scowling darkly at moral failings she identified in members of the Church or society, or brightening with a good laugh while making a point about some teaching of the faith. And the habit proclaimed an embrace of Catholic orthodoxy that might be said to have anticipated the so-called “reform of the reform” movement, which addressed what it saw as liturgical excesses put into practice after the Second Vatican Council.