HANCEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Mother Angelica's religious devotion made her an inspiration to Catholics around the world, but mourners who honored her Friday said it was her relatable and embracing nature that helped spread the love of Jesus through a worldwide media empire that grew from the garage of a monastery in rural Alabama.
Mother Angelica, born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio in 1923, died at age 92 on Easter Sunday at the monastery where she lived about 45 miles north of Birmingham.
She had been in declining health since suffering a severe cerebral hemorrhage on Christmas Eve 2001, lost her speaking ability and had suffered other, less severe strokes since then. She had been bedridden for months and fellow nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery said in November that she had been placed on a feeding tube.
Mother Angelica joined other nuns in moving South to open a new monastery in Alabama in 1962. She and 12 other nuns used $200 in startup money to expand the monastery's garage to make room for a television studio, and her talk show "Mother Angelica Live" became a mainstay as the network gained popularity. EWTN eventually began broadcasting 24 hours a day and offered extensive coverage of visits and statements by the Pope.
The station bills itself as the world's largest religious media network, reaching more than 250 million households in 145 countries. The network also operates radio stations, along with print and digital publishing platforms.
Roughly 2,000 people attended Mother Angelica's funeral Mass in Hanceville, Alabama, where signs and banners in her honor adorned some of the roads and overpasses leading to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville. Many attendees sat outside on folding chairs and watched the service on video boards in the piazza.
"You cannot understand Mother Angelica without reference to the one she loved with the passion of a bride," the Rev. Joseph Wolfe repeated during the Mass, later praising the Roman Catholic nun's welcoming nature and common sense approaches to challenges that had resonated with so many.
"Hers was a practiced spirituality for the man in the pew," Wolfe said.
PERSONALITY DREW NEW, FORMER FOLLOWERS
Frances Tomcavage drove from Orlando, Florida for Mother Angelica's funeral Mass and praised the nun's ability to persevere through physical ailments that marked much of her life and her practical approach to delivering messages to viewers.
"She made the love of Jesus all so understandable. He's not a mystery," Tomcavage said. "She made him so loving and so understandable and as a result, these priests have projected the same. The network has projected the same."
Tomcavage said Mother Angelica's courage in launching EWTN brought thousands of new followers to the faith, and helped encourage the return of former ones.
"We call them converts and reverts," she said. "I even had some in my own family come back to the faith."
A ROLE MODEL FOR CATHOLIC WOMEN
Lilly Allen, an educator originally from Ocala, Florida, said Mother Mary Angelica and the shrine her funeral was held at inspired her family to move to the Hanceville area 12 years ago. Allen called Mother Angelica a role model for Catholic women everywhere because of her courage, service and obedience.
"She was committed, convicted, she was passionate about her love for Jesus and the church," Allen said. "We feel that she is already at the heavenly gates with Jesus and its invigorating for our faith to know that we have a friend close to him. I truly mean it from my heart."
CALLED TO SPREAD THE WORD
Sam Ranelli of Hanceville began working for EWTN in 1988 and recalled working closely with nuns before the network grew into what it is today. Regardless of the challenges the network and staff faced, Ranelli said Mother Angelica's primary concern remained clear.
"It was very much mission oriented. She would tell us that God has chosen us to do something for him and that's what we were to do," Ranelli said. He began working in the station's marketing department and became its webmaster before he left in 2006.
Ranelli recalled that Mother Angelica was more concerned with her staff's spiritual well-being than whether they had solutions to all the challenges the network faced as it grew.
"Even if we didn't know what we were doing, we would just do it," Ranelli said, laughing. "Something she used to always say is that 'We don't know what we're doing, but we're getting good at it.'"