(RNS) An announcement last week that Mother Angelica, the doughty nun who founded the EWTN cable network, had been given a feeding tube set off alarm bells, especially among her loyal following of conservative Catholics.
Mother Angelica suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2001 but the sisters at her Alabama monastery say that the tube is not a last-ditch effort to keep her alive and that the 92-year-old nun has regained some strength and weight.
“When people see ‘feeding tube’ they think, oh no, it’s getting serious,” said Luke Johnasen, a spokesman for her order, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville.
“The Lord is in charge, she may be taken tomorrow, we don’t know,” Johnasen told Religion News Service on Monday (Nov. 30). “But at least the initial intent of the feeding tube was not an end-of-life kind of thing but to assist her and help her get the nutrients she was lacking.”
And that has seemed to work, he said. She is able to take some foods orally and to receive the bread and wine of the sacraments most days.
Mother Angelica does remain confined to bed and sleeps a good deal, Johnasen said, and she is unable to communicate except by squeezing a visitor’s hand, or with a smile. “When she’s awake her mind is very lucid,” he said. “She knows who people are.”
Despite being almost incommunicado for so many years, Mother Angelica has such a devoted following that every update about her condition prompts widespread concern.
Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, in 1923, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation — as she came to be known — entered the Poor Clares, a branch of the Franciscan order, in 1944. She went on to found a monastery in Irondale, Ala., in 1962 and in the 1990s started the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where she now resides, about an hour north in Hanceville.
But Mother Angelica is best known for the unlikely success of the Eternal Word Television Network, the Catholic cable channel she started in 1981 after the commercial television spots she had begun producing were pre-empted.
Later known simply as EWTN, the station became a beacon of conservative orthodoxy thanks in large part to the regular — and distinctive — on-air presence of Mother Angelica herself.
Wearing a black-and-white habit and a sweet but steely smile, Mother Angelica would not hesitate to scold church leaders who she felt were too lax in their teachings or practices. She promoted traditional devotions and rites and claimed to have experienced mystical visions herself.
Then, in 2001, she suffered a series of strokes that began limiting her appearances, and a massive hemorrhage on Christmas Eve that year left her largely incapacitated.
Under the direction of a lay board, EWTN continued to grow, and today it claims to be “the largest religious media network in the world,” broadcasting 24/7 in multiple languages to more than 258 million television households in 145 countries and territories. EWTN also has a popular website and since 2011 has operated the National Catholic Register newspaper, in addition to a publishing division.
In their most recent update on Mother Angelica’s health, the cloistered nuns at her monastery wrote that her condition had “declined,” necessitating the feeding tube.
“There were some up and down moments, and Mother has suffered a great deal these past months,” the update read, adding: “She is quite a trouper. God has gifted Mother with much suffering during her life which she has always accepted, living out her motto … ‘All for Jesus.’”
(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS.)