‘Example of female empowerment': celebrating Mother Angelica

“With the death of Mother Angelica on Easter Sunday, the Church has lost the most charismatic American Catholic media personality of her time, as well as someone who proved beyond any doubt that a determined and savvy woman can, after all, wield real power inside an organization often perceived as a boys’ club.”


So began John Allen’s tribute to the iconic 92-year-old Franciscan sister from Ohio, born Rita Antoinette Rizzo, the only child of John and Mae Rizzo. It is fitting to celebrate her legacy in this issue of the NCSW e-newsletter dedicated to gratitude; we give thanks for her profound impact. Mother Angelica is the only woman in history to found and lead a cable network for 20 years. As the founder and star of ETWN, she raised visibility of women religious, drawing believers and non-believers alike into the beauty of Catholic devotions. She appeared in people’s living rooms across the globe, reaching hundreds of millions on television and countless more online and providing a much-needed measure of spirituality and comfort.

“The fact that EWTN succeeded where other efforts to build a Catholic presence on cable failed, including one backed by the U.S. bishops’ conference, illustrates a core truth of the media world: At the beginning, you don’t need deep pockets, sophisticated technology, or extensive delivery platforms,” writes John Allen. “All you need is one charismatic personality whom people will crawl over hot coals to see or hear, and everything else will take care of itself.”

He elaborated on her impact:

"First, she proved that an independent, lay-led enterprise can pack a greater punch than officialdom in communicating a Catholic message. She and EWTN relativized the power of the hierarchy in America, not by attacking it, but simply by showing they didn’t need it to succeed.

Second, she also showed that a woman can stand toe-to-toe with powerful clerics in the Church and give every bit as good as she got.

Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica."

As part of National Catholic Sisters Week, we celebrate all that women religious build. Mother Angelica exemplifies this: She built something that went far beyond herself, the world’s largest religious media organization.

As Pope Francis remarked on March 30 when asked about the late Franciscan sister, pointing to the sky: “She’s in heaven.” 

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.