EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting

Founded by the irrepressible nun Mother Mary Angelica, the Eternal Word Television Network began religious broadcasting out of a monastery garage. The effort to build a Catholic spiritual growth network eventually developed into the world’s largest religious broadcasting network, reaching nearly 120 million homes in 127 countries with twenty-four-hour programming.

Summary of Event

Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) was founded by Mother Mary Angelica, born Rita Rizzo, a Franciscan nun known for her mix of evangelization and entrepreneurship as well as her temper and resilience. Raised in a broken home and suffering various health problems, Rizzo dedicated her life to God as a Poor Clare nun, taking the name Sister Angelica of the Annunciation. Her business ventures began in 1959 with the founding of St. Peter’s Fishing Lures, a company that garnered her an award from Sports Illustrated. EWTN
Eternal Word Television Network
Television;religious programs
[kw]EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting (Aug. 15, 1981)
[kw]Religious Broadcasting, EWTN Begins (Aug. 15, 1981)
[kw]Broadcasting, EWTN Begins Religious (Aug. 15, 1981)
Eternal Word Television Network
Television;religious programs
[g]North America;Aug. 15, 1981: EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting[04640]
[g]United States;Aug. 15, 1981: EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting[04640]
[c]Radio and television;Aug. 15, 1981: EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting[04640]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug. 15, 1981: EWTN Begins Religious Broadcasting[04640]
Mary Angelica, Mother
Steltemeier, William
John Paul II
Oddi, Silvio

In the 1960’s, Sister Angelica founded the monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in Irondale, Alabama (a suburb of Birmingham), as an outreach to African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. Mother Angelica began leading Bible studies, self-publishing religious booklets, and giving spiritual conferences around the country. In 1978, two crucial events occurred while she was attending a conference in Chicago. The first was a tour of a television studio, which inspired her to begin taping her own programs; the second was meeting William Steltemeier, a successful attorney and permanent deacon from Nashville, who would become one of her most important collaborators.

In 1978, she taped a series called Our Hermitage at a local television station. Her series was picked up for sixty episodes by the Christian Broadcasting Network Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN, now ABC Family). During the taping of her second series, In His Sandals, she discovered that the local station was airing a movie she considered blasphemous. She refused to continue working with the studio and started her own, expanding her monastery’s garage and purchasing camera equipment. Her nuns served as her crew, even though they had no formal training in communications equipment or videography.

In 1979, Mother Angelica decided that, rather than sell her programs to evangelical networks such as CBN and the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), she would start a cable network specifically to promote Catholicism. In September, 1980, she applied for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license and ordered a satellite dish. She sought support from every Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, but none of the bishops agreed to help, as they saw no potential in the venture.

In January, 1981, Our Lady of the Angels became the first monastery to receive an FCC license. In March, the satellite dish arrived. Without any money on hand to pay for the dish, which cost $600,000, Mother Angelica stalled, negotiated, and prayed. Just as the crew was about to leave, she received a phone call from a donor offering her just the amount she needed to pay the bill. That spring, the studio began producing additional content to Mother Angelica’s shows.

In May, 1981, the monastery received a visit from Silvio Oddi, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican body that oversees matters pertaining to diocesan priests and deacons. Mother Angelica’s order was cloistered, meaning that the nuns led a secluded life dedicated to prayer. Cloistered nuns are not supposed to leave their monasteries except when absolutely necessary, they do not usually allow visitors, and they are to avoid being seen by outsiders. For a cloistered nun to become involved in a television ministry was considered scandalous by some in the Church, yet when Oddi met with Mother Angelica, he gave the network his blessing. The Vatican soon granted her official permission to continue with this new ministry.

EWTN went on the air August 15, 1981, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. Steltemeier served as president of the network. Initially, the network only broadcast four hours a day, reaching only sixty thousand homes. The network started with limited original programming, mixed with reruns of Fulton Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living (1952), some Protestant programs, and even some “family-friendly” secular programs and films. As time went on, most of the non-Catholic programming was phased out.

As the network grew, it faced opposition from the Church itself. Mother Angelica would not allow program submissions she deemed too liberal or heterodox. The U.S. Catholic bishops, concerned that the network did not represent progressive viewpoints, attempted to counteract EWTN. In the 1980’s, the United States Catholic Conference spent millions of dollars to start its own cable network, which offered a more liberal version of Catholicism, but the network failed. Later, after several Protestant televangelists were disgraced in the late 1980’s in financial and sexual scandals, some opponents tried to find the same flaws in EWTN. Trusting in God’s providence on matters of money, Mother Angelica never kept any records and never maintained a budget. This led some to try to accuse her of financial misappropriation, but their charges were groundless.

The U.S. bishops’ network was eventually merged into the interfaith Faith and Values Network Faith and Values Network (which later became the Hallmark Channel). For a while in the early 1990’s, it gained the favor of many cable systems for its nondenominational approach and its refusal to solicit funds, avoiding the specter of televangelism.

A crucifix and on-air sign leading to the Eternal Word Television Network television studios, in Irondale, Alabama. The network, which carries Roman Catholic programming, was founded by Mother Mary Angelica in 1981.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Meanwhile, Mother Angelica became increasingly trenchant in her conservative interpretation of Catholicism. She was bolstered by support both from laity who wanted a more strict Catholic message and from the Vatican. She had four private audiences with Pope John Paul II, who continually encouraged her efforts, particularly when she came under criticism by bishops.

In the 1990’s, the network expanded its satellite reach to every continent. It also added a radio network and a successful Web site. By the time the network celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2006, it was one of only two religious-oriented networks, along with TBN, that aired internationally, twenty-four hours a day.


EWTN’s success had impacts on broadcasting and politics as well as on religion. Mother Angelica’s controversial policy of ignoring budgets and ratings in favor of trusting in God had astonishing results. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the network’s kind of dogmatic, sectarian programming would not go over well; yet EWTN grew while other networks that tried to be more nondenominational or open-minded failed.

The conservative, orthodox Catholicism represented on EWTN was not promoted in most Catholic pulpits and publications in the 1980’s. However, many Catholics felt that the reforms of the Church called for in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965; also known as Vatican II) had been carried too far, and they rallied around EWTN. It provided daily broadcasts of the Catholic mass and devotional prayers like the Rosary, as well as special Masses and events from the Vatican and from Washington, D.C. On September 5, 2003, EWTN aired the only English-language interview conducted with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

In the world of politics, EWTN helped shape the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in the United States. The network emphasized moral issues in particular the pro-life agenda and was instrumental in the election of George W. Bush, although the network did not specifically endorse any candidate. EWTN
Eternal Word Television Network
Television;religious programs

Further Reading

  • Angelica, Mother, and Christine Allison. Mother Angelica’s Answers, Not Promises. 2d ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996. Though not strictly a biography or historical book, this is the definitive collection of Mother Angelica’s thoughts on spiritual matters, often illustrated with anecdotes from her life.
  • Arroyo, Raymond. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 2005. Authorized biography of Mother Angelica, written by EWTN’s news director in honor of the network’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
  • Lopez, Kathryn Jean. “Mother Angelica’s Empire of the Airwaves.” Crisis 19 (July/August, 2001). History of the EWTN network written in honor of its twentieth anniversary.

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