Joyce Leviton
August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

In some ways she is a combination of Ted Turner and Mother Teresa—a regular one-woman network for Jesus. “I want to reach people all over the world to tell them that God loves them even when life stinks,” says Mother Angelica, Abbess of Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Birmingham, Ala. Next week her Eternal Word Television Network, a satellite broadcast beamed at an audience of 300,000 in 12 states and Canada, hits the airwaves with just that kind of good news.

The fact that operating the station will cost Mother Angelica and her monastery of 12 nuns $110,000 a month is a mere detail she leaves to faith—and to God. “I’ve never come up short yet,” she says.

Four years ago Mother Angelica had a thriving but more modest business going—recording and distributing cassettes and videotapes of her homey lectures to religious TV stations around the country. While on location one day, she saw a satellite dish antenna and recalls saying, “Lord, I gotta have one of those.”

With a small down payment and $335,000 in credit underwritten by supporters, she had the satellite antenna installed on the monastery’s property and began producing four hours of free daily programming. Though Mother Angelica, 58, is the newest convert to join the rapidly increasing flock of electronic ministers, she says her television ministry will be different and sees nothing unusual about a nun taking to the airwaves.

“We live in a world that says TV is bad. I find TV bad too, but it’s only what people put on it that makes it that way,” she explains. “The Gospel must be taught and not preached.”

Mother Angelica’s teaching ministry began in Alabama 11 years ago with weekly Lenten Bible classes. Soon, by popular demand, she was taping the lessons on cassettes and had set up a shop in the monastery to print the pamphlets that Our Lady of the Angels began distributing free. Several years later, while renting studio time from a local TV station, a dispute developed between her and the studio manager over the airing of a movie she considered blasphemous, and the feisty nun decided to go it alone.

“I told him I would get my own studio and my own cameras,” she recalls. “I came back to the monastery where our builder was putting on a garage. I told him to make it 10 feet wider and 10 feet longer to turn it into a studio.” Her first attempts at taping were disastrous. “I did all sorts of things wrong, like blowing out a candle that wasn’t even lit,” she laughs. “I looked like Andy Gump because the light was under my chin.”

Mother Angelica’s belief in miracles has served her well. Born Rita Francis and raised in Canton, Ohio, she was a drum majorette in high school and after graduation found a job as an advertising copywriter. Her first serious encounter with her faith occurred shortly thereafter when her severe stomach pains were cured following nine days of prayer. In 1944 she joined a Franciscan order in Cleveland. As a young nun, she suffered a debilitating back injury while using a scrubbing machine to clean a convent floor and spent two years in hospitals and four months in traction. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if you give me the grace to walk again, I will build you a monastery in the South.’ ” She still wears a brace on her left leg and her back, but in 1961 she got permission from her order to found Our Lady of the Angels in a sandstone and limestone pit outside Birmingham. One of the nuns now at the convent is her own mother, who joined the order at age 63.

With a professional crew of 11 plus the nuns and local talent, Mother Angelica expects to fill her programming schedule with “up programs—entertainment, education, culture and religion. I hope eventually to broadcast Mass in the 50 states. I go on the balloon theory,” she says. “Put it up there and let them have it. Praise the Lord.”

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