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Monday, January 16, 2006

Love Bears Fruit: The Triumph of Mother Angelica

Tom Hoopes

Part 2 of 4

This is the second part of a four part series about Mother Angelica. For the rest of the article, click the following links for Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4.

Mother Everywhere

I put the book aside when the pilot turned off the “Fasten seat belts” sign and called Jerry Hensel on his cell phone. Hensel is a production assistant for EWTN, one person on a staff of 300. Forty percent of the employees are Protestant, 60 percent are Catholic. Hensel was living in Florida when Mother Angelica first reached him.

“I was a firefighter for 21 years,” he said. “But the environment was getting increasingly hostile, amoral.” He and his wife were avid EWTN fans. They took a pilgrimage to the monastery and television studios and brought Hensel’s résumé. They have been in Birmingham ever since.

Hensel’s story reminded me of the EWTN convert stories I had collected. So would many others I heard that day.

My first interview of the morning was with Michael P. Warsaw, president of the network, up in the corner office once occupied by Mother Angelica herself. He was living in Washington, DC, and working at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when he sat down with Mother for a “brief chat” that ended hours later with her invitation to “C’mon down!”

At the time, his wife, Jackie, had done a year of doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and was a classical singer working in venues in the Baltimore-Washington area. They had been married less than a year. It took her a while to get used to living in Birmingham, but the family is finally settled in — and now includes son Michael and daughter Angelica.

Next I sat down with Deacon R. William Steltemeier, chairman and CEO of the company — the title Mother had until her retirement in 2000. His EWTN vocation story began when he and Mother locked eyes, but never spoke, at a talk she was giving in Chicago. When he looked her up weeks later and traveled from his native Memphis to meet her, she took one glance at him and said, “What took you so long?”

Deacon Steltemeier was there when EWTN was founded in a converted garage near Our Lady of the Angels monastery, two months before Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.

In the early days, “Mother was a constant presence” at the studio and in EWTN’s offices, says Warsaw.

Now, Mother Angelica’s monastery has moved off the lot to a grand new location an hour away in Hanceville, and she no longer visits the studio. But she’s still present.

You see her everywhere you go, gazing out from wall posters, smiling warmly from cards pinned to bulletin boards, sitting like a logo on the front of brochures and pamphlets.

She’s there in the names the staff have given their children. Warsaw happened to have three Mother Angelica books on his desk when I visited. According to Steltemeier, “Mother’s still the heart and soul of the network.”

Indeed she is. She oversaw the building of EWTN from a single show to the point where it now offers 24-hour programming, 80 percent of it produced on site, to 104 million homes in 110 countries on cable, satellite, and low-power TV. Before she stepped aside, she personally picked all of the officers who now lead the network.

“Since December 2001 when she had her stroke, EWTN has had its largest single period of growth,” Warsaw told me. “One of the secrets of EWTN’s success is her constant prayers in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”

A Whirlwind Tour

After the calm and quiet of my interviews came a whirlwind tour of EWTN’s property. I had to practically jog to keep up with EWTN communications’ vice president,
A. Scott Hults. We moved in and out of corridors, seamlessly passing between the converted garage where the network started and the wings of offices and workrooms that were added over the years.

I noticed rows of what looked like room dividers, until I got closer. Each of them was a backdrop for an EWTN show.

Pull this one out of its tight little space and roll it behind Marcus Grodi and he’s in a living room for The Journey Home. This one transports Fr. Francis Mary (a priest of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, founded by Mother Angelica in 1987) to his on-air coffee house for Life on the Rock. There’s a library in there to roll behind the intellectuals, faux stained glass for the spiritual programs. I’m enough of a romantic to feel a buzz of excitement in the presence of these artifacts, seen by millions.

“We construct these ourselves,” said Hults, who gives Doug Keck, the network’s programming senior vice president, credit for upgrading the on-air look of EWTN. He deserves it. As EWTN ages, it actually looks younger than ever on air.

Next he took me into the workshop where set designers create these on-air “environments.” EWTN does practically everything in-house. It has a print shop, an Internet server farm, radio studios with a worldwide reach, and satellite transponders that beam its programming into space and back into cable carriers and satellite homes all over the world.

We stayed a bit to watch. Through a glass window and on screens above them, we could see the action in the TV studio, where a young woman was turning on all her sunny kid-charm to coax a well-dressed boy to say, “When I grow up, I want to do what God wants.”

Stubbornly, he refused. Ebulliently, she insisted.

This is also a sign of EWTN’s growth. Back in the early 1980s all they had to produce was Mother Angelica Live two nights a week. The rest of the schedule was filled with borrowed religious and secular shows. Now they create their own programming for every age group.

Down the next corridor, we stepped into a booth where a young blond woman in casual clothes was squinting at a screen, wearing earphones, and typing. “She’s double checking the Spanish-language subtitles,” Hults told me.

Sure enough, the screen was filled with Spanish. EWTN has heavily infiltrated the airwaves of Latin and South America — and offers its programs to the Spanish-speaking population coast to coast in the United States.

She took off her earphones and greeted me in a thick Southern drawl. The juxtaposition of Spanish and Southernese took me off guard, as so much did on this tour. We passed the big front desk with a reredos of TV screens behind it showing EWTN feeds from around the world, darted briefly outside through a gaggle of Philippino tourists, then burst back in through another door, almost colliding with Jesuit Fr. Mitch Pacwa, host of EWTN Live, wearing a big straw hat and a broad smile.

Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the National Catholic Register, and, with his wife April, editorial director of Faith & Family magazine.

  • (This article is courtesy of Crisis Magazine. This data file is the sole property of of the copyright holder, Crisis Magazine.)

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