by Beverly Stevens, REGINA Magazine Editor
“Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air and a queasy feeling in the stomach.” — Rita Antoinette Rizzo, AKA Mother Angelica
She was an Italian-American original, a type I happen to know well. Cracking jokes, taking on the paladins in the bishops’ palaces, speaking her mind, risking it all for her Faith.
A real-life ‘Jenny from the neighborhood’ — familiar to all of us children of Italian immigrants, the poor, unwashed Catholic masses who escaped Garibaldi’s ‘paradise’ of modernized Italy and flocked to America’s shores in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Rita’s grandparents were likely on a similar ship to those my own grandparents Guiseppe and Concetta boarded at Naples. They settled in the same kind of place, too: Canton, Ohio with its mills not very different from Tarrytown, New York with its General Motors plant.
Her family story in America tallies with mine. The future Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo, on April 20, 1923 — just six months before my own aunt, Josephine. And like my Aunt Josephine, she was raised Catholic in a hardscrabble neighborhood, minus the loving support of a mother. My grandmother Concetta died too young; Rita’s mother was unable to care properly for her daughter.
In 1944 at the tender age of 21, Josephine worked as a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ in Tarrytown’s Eastern Aircraft plant; half a continent away, Rita joined the convent. But little did she imagine that the eternal verities she was seeking would, in her maturity, unceremoniously explode in her face. The maelstrom that the Second Vatican Council unleashed would circle the globe and land in her lap — therein unleashing her genius.
In a quieter time in the Church’s millennia-long history, Rita Rizzo would likely have had a hidden life in the Jesus she loved, like countless women religious before her. But it was because Sister Angelica was a practical girl — not at all the sort prepared by the Church to do great, high-flown things — that she became an internationally-known figure.
And it was, definitely, God. For if the world had its way, she would have lived and died in obscurity, perhaps as a ‘new nun’ — or more likely discarding her habit and her vocation like so many tens of thousands of other practical girls who joined the convent in her generation and left in despair in the wake of the ‘changes’.
But Sister Angelica wasn’t a quitter. And from her vantage point — powerless, penniless and pretty much without any worldly support — she had an advantage over the rich Catholics in their private schools and the paladins in the bishops’ palaces and the Vatican.
Because she saw what was really going on.
It took her a few years, but she caught on. With increasing clarity, she saw that many of the so-called ‘leaders’ of the Church were about discarding the verities of our 2000-year old Faith in favor of the approbation of the world. She saw that some of these were, in fact, corrupted by their position — and that many more were mediocrities, intent on not rocking the boat to the point where they hid the evil-doing of priests infected with a homosexual longing for the young men that Catholic families had entrusted to them.
Mother Angelica saw all of this and did not hide away in her convent. Instead, armed with her faith and the support of a few like-minded Catholics, she built a media empire, grasping innately what all the paladins with their conferences and their limousines couldn’t quite comprehend: that the media was the way to reach late 20th century Catholics.
Television was the way to catechize — to reach over the heads of the uninspired, equivocating clergy, and the Baby Boom parents who couldn’t quite see their way into the Church, often leaving their children un-baptized and un-catechized. Rita’s Eternal Word Television Network vaulted directly into the living rooms of America, and later, the world.
But TV wasn’t cheap. Thus, we have the extraordinary story of Rita from the neighborhood inspiring Catholics to donate their nickels and dimes, buying equipment with eye-watering price tags on a wing and a prayer — only to have a check for that precise amount land on her desk the following day. Thus was launched a global media network from the unlikely Bible Belt backwater of Irondale, Alabama.
But that wasn’t all. As she delved deeper into her own spirituality, Mother Angelica was inspired to found not just one, but two religious communities — a cloistered convent, the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration and a men’s community, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. Then, for good measure, she built an Italianate church in Hanceville, Alabama (pictured above).
That all of this was unlikely in the extreme was not lost on her. With characteristic frankness, she once told her audience, “God looks for dodos. A dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodos, and I’m a dodo.”
For anyone who has ever read the works of the 16th century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, the tone is familiar, loud and clear: this is a daughter of the Church, telling it like it is.
But there’s much more to this story, because all of us are heirs to the extraordinary fortune which little Rita Rizzo has left behind. To wit, the certain knowledge that we — the simple, the unlettered, the ordinary Catholics — cannot leave the Faith to the vagaries of a clerical class often unduly influenced by academic trends and worldly considerations — and often, things far worse, as Mother understood all too clearly.
This Faith is ours, our gift from those who came before — and a legacy we must pass on to the generations to come. Would that we all take inspiration from Rita’s faith in her God, to do His will in the years we have on this earth.
She died on Easter Sunday, surely a sign from the Lord she served so devotedly. On Friday, April 1 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time, a Mass of Christian Burial, Procession and Rite of Committal will lay Rita Antoinette Rizzo in her grave.
Ripose en pace, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.
Pray for us.
“Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.”