Eternal Word Television Network, Inc.
Eternal Word Television Network, Inc.
Operating Revenues: $25 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 513120 Television Broadcasting
Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. (EWTN) provides 24-hour television and radio programming for a worldwide Roman Catholic audience. The nonprofit network was founded by a Franciscan nun and has its studios in an Alabama convent, the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. EWTN’s activities are supported by private donations and sales of books, videotapes, and religious articles. One of the largest religious media networks in the world, EWTN is available to more than 70 million homes in 79 countries worldwide through cable systems, wireless cable, direct broadcast satellite, low power TV, and individual satellite systems. The network’s television programming reaches audiences in North America, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America, and is also available through the Internet. In addition, EWTN offers 24-hour AM/FM shortwave radio programming.
One of EWTN’s longest-running shows was Mother Angelica Live, an hour-long biweekly program on which the network’s founder spoke directly to her viewers and took phone calls. Following a pair of strokes she suffered in 2001, Mother Angelica continued to be present to viewers through the programs The Best of Mother Angelica Live and Mother Angelica Live Classics. The original show also continued to air, under the new title EWTN Live, with replacement host Father Mitch Pacwa.
EWTN also produces several other regular series featuring Catholic theologians and devotional leaders and broadcasts a “Daily Mass” from the convent’s chapel in Irondale. Other programming includes documentaries, music specials, a televised Rosary, and a news program with a Catholic perspective. The network makes a special effort to follow happenings at the Vatican, with live coverage of the pope’s travels around the world.
Network founder Mother Angelica has been the defining personality at EWTN throughout its history. The nun is guided by a firm faith in her ministry, placing more trust in the providence of God than in practical matters such as financial planning. She has frequently set her sights on a lofty goal while having faith that the necessary means would be provided. While the network’s viewers are indeed loyal supporters, others within the Catholic Church are uncomfortable with the conservative focus of Mother Angelica and EWTN. The nun has often criticized liberals and feminists in her weekly shows, and they in turn have objected to her strictly orthodox interpretation of Catholicism. Nevertheless, the network remains one of the most visible representations of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Mother Angelica’s Background: 1923–81
The founder of EWTN was born Rita Francis Rizzo in 1923 in Canton, Ohio. She experienced a difficult childhood, marked by divorce and poverty, and found the nuns at her parochial school to be unsympathetic. Nevertheless, Rizzo had a profound personal faith and, when her prayers to be cured of a persistent abdominal pain were answered, she considered the healing a miracle. The experience influenced her decision in 1944 to enter a convent in Cleveland, where she became a Franciscan Nun of the Most Blessed Sacrament, also known as a Poor Clare. There “Mother Angelica” lived a life of frugality, seclusion, and prayer.
A second healing experience led Mother Angelica to found her own convent. After a back injury, doctors told her she might not walk again. She prayed to God, promising that if she regained use of her legs, she would start a convent in the Deep South, where only 2 percent of the population was Catholic. Eventually Mother Angelica was able to walk with a crutch, so she carried through on her promise. First she raised money by selling fishing lures and then, in 1961, built the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Alabama. In the first year, seven sisters lived together in the new structure, among them Mother Angelica’s own mother. The sisters lived a secluded life, enjoying general goodwill from their neighbors and roasting peanuts to pay for their daily needs.
In 1971 Mother Angelica was invited by a local Protestant church to teach Bible study. The nun had developed her skills as a religious instructor by giving daily lessons to the sisters after breakfast. Her foray into the wider community was successful, and she soon gained a reputation as an engaging teacher. More Bible study engagements followed in both Catholic and Protestant congregations. Eventually people began requesting printed versions of Mother Angelica’s talks, which led to the establishment of a printing press in the monastery. The Poor Clare sisters started shipping mini-books and leaflets around the country.
Mother Angelica made her television debut in 1978, when a video series of her talks was taped at a Birmingham station for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Shortly thereafter she set up her own studio at the monastery to tape regular shows for a series known as “Our Heritage.” Mother Angelica’s exposure to the world of television technology made her determined to have her own facility. After a few years she parted ways with the Christian Broadcasting Network over their airing of a film that she considered blasphemous, and moved toward the establishment of an independent Catholic network.
Early Growth in the 1980s
The Eternal Word Television Network was launched on August 15, 1981, and began transmitting four hours a day to about 60,000 homes. Preparations for the launch had filled the first half of 1981. A nonprofit company was set up under the leadership of William Steltemeier, a successful Nashville lawyer. In March a $350,000, ten-meter “dish” antenna was installed, funded by small donations from Catholics around the world. The annual cost of satellite time and operating expenses was estimated to be around $1.5 million. Although the network’s leaders were not sure where that sum would come from, they trusted that if the ministry had spiritual worth, financial support would materialize. EWTN’s goal was to provide warm and personal programming, dealing more with the spiritual aspects of faith than with politics and other worldly matters.
In November 1982 Mother Angelica had her first audience with Pope John Paul II and presented him with a model of a satellite dish. By 1983 the network’s subscribers had grown to one million. The first live program aired in August of that year, celebrating the network’s second anniversary. In October several live shows made their debut on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, featuring theologians and religious leaders such as Father Harold Cohen, Father Mitch Pacwa, and Babsie Bleasdale. By December it was apparent that the current studio was inadequate for the expanded programming activities, so Mother Angelica took a novel step to demonstrate her desire for a new studio. She directed an EWTN carpenter to tie white rags on all the trees that would have to be cut down on the new site, saying she wanted the Lord to look down and see that she needed a larger studio. The tactic, in any case, proved effective in attracting attention down on earth: a friend of the convent stopped by, asked about the rags, and ended up donating $50,000 to start construction of a new building.
A new 6,500-square-foot post-production facility was dedicated in April 1985. By that time, EWTN had more than five million subscribers and garnered nationwide attention when a profile of Mother Angelica aired a few months later on the CBS television show 60 Minutes. As EWTN viewership grew, the network decided it was time to expand its offerings. It took a huge step forward in September 1987 when it moved to 24-hour programming. To fill the air time, the network created new series and showed documentaries and specials. EWTN also took on a commitment to broadcast internationally significant Catholic events, including happenings at the Vatican, the pope’s global travels, holy day events from major shrines, and the installation of bishops. A new production vehicle was delivered in August 1988 to support location work. The “Gabriel I” was outfitted for onsite taping, production, and editing. The following month EWTN acquired an uplink truck, which made live coverage possible by beaming location programs back to Birmingham via satellite. In 1988 the network also started broadcasting live Masses of Holy Days from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The broadcasts were supported by a grant from the Knights of Columbus.
Mother Angelica was becoming a nationally known figure in the Catholic Church, and she used this visibility to express her convictions about her faith. For example, when the film The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese, was condemned by the U.S. Catholic Church, Mother Angelica was one of the voices cited against the film. The Los Angeles Times reported that she said anyone watching the film would be committing a “deliberate act of blasphemy.” She objected to the unflattering portrayal of Christ as a figure with human weaknesses.
Eternal Word Television Network is dedicated to the advancement of truth as defined by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. The mission of the Eternal Word Television Network is to serve the orthodox belief and teaching of the Church as proclaimed by the Supreme Pontiff and his predecessors.
The goal of the Eternal Word Television Network is to provide the means by which the various organizations within the Church will have a nationwide vehicle of expression. This will be provided for them without charge as long as their spirituality remains within the theological context of Mother Church. This is best evidenced by the acceptance of the Dogmas, Rules and Regulations of the Church in all matters, but especially as they relate to the topics on which their television presentation is based.
As the Eternal Word Television Network exists to provide a media for orthodox endeavors, this mission statement should be viewed as the basis of or foundation for this essential spiritual growth ministry, not as an attempt to censor any organization or individual.
As EWTN’s influence expanded, the network began to take the Hispanic Catholic community into consideration. In 1989 three blocks of time were allotted for Spanish language programming. Hispanic viewers were particularly interested in EWTN’s live coverage of the pope’s visit to Mexico in May 1990. In August 1990 Mother Angelica had her second audience with the pope, during which he told her to continue her television ministry. When the Gulf War started, EWTN aired the American bishops’ message of encouragement to troops and their families. During the following Lenten season, the network began broadcasting live daily Masses from its own Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. The broadcasts were initially intended to encourage the families of Gulf War soldiers, but after the war ended viewers requested that the daily masses continue. As a result, unobtrusive robotic cameras were installed in the Alabama monastery’s chapel in mid-1991. The network now estimated its number of subscribers at 22 million.
An Outspoken National Presence: 1990–2002
One of the greatest challenges to EWTN’s expansion consisted in persuading cable operators to carry the network. EWTN’s loyal supporters initiated grass-roots campaigns to influence cable systems, meeting with mixed results. In Buffalo, New York, EWTN’s backers threatened to oppose renewal of a cable operator’s franchise with the city and cancel their cable service unless the Catholic network was put on the air. The cable company gave in and agreed to carry EWTN in late 1990. In the fall of 1994, EWTN was temporarily taken off the air in Raleigh, North Carolina. The network was put back on the air after its viewers prayed and marched into the offices of the local cable company singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A Cincinnati campaign in the fall of 1990 was less successful. There, Warner Cablevision stuck with its decision to replace EWTN with other religious networks, despite a mail and phone campaign in opposition to the move. The Vision Interfaith Satellite Network (VISN) was one of the networks that replaced EWTN. VISN was operated by diverse Judeo-Christian faiths and had a policy against on-air solicitation of funds. That policy appealed to cable operators in the wake of the scandal involving televangelist Jim Bakker. Because cable operators were reluctant to devote more than one channel to religious programming, there was fierce competition among religious networks for cable time.
In December 1992 the generosity of Dutch philanthropists Piet and Trude Derksen made it possible for EWTN to expand into the realm of radio. A short-wave station, WEWN, began broadcasting 24 hours a day in English and Spanish. The radio service was generated by a newly constructed complex consisting of four 500-kilowatt radio transmitters and two diesel generators for backup power. The complex was built on Alabama’s third-tallest mountain beginning in April 1991. The project upset several property owners, who objected to the widening of an old logging road, the clearing of ten acres of trees, and the installation of power lines that now snaked up the mountainside. Lawsuits were filed against EWTN and the Alabama Power Co. EWTN President William Steltemeier pointed out that he could not expect to satisfy everybody. The largest subscriber increase in the network’s history also occurred in 1992. Six million new homes were connected, increasing the network’s audience to a total of 31 million homes.
In 1993 Mother Angelica had her third audience with the pope and presented him with photos of the new radio station. That summer EWTN provided live coverage of World Youth Day ’93 in Denver, Colorado, and Mother Angelica gained attention for one of her most outspoken criticisms of liberal Catholicism yet. Specifically, she objected to the fact that a woman played the role of Jesus in an enactment of the Stations of the Cross presented by a Catholic theater troupe. Mother Angelica was one of about a dozen prominent Catholics who signed a letter to the Vatican denouncing the performance. Time magazine quoted her as saying, “Enough is enough. I’m tired of inclusive language that refuses to admit that the Son of God is a man. I’m tired of you, liberal church in America. You’re sick.” The incident solidified her reputation as an opponent of feminists, liberals, and of what she perceived as a watering-down of the church’s teachings. Some Catholics were attracted to Mother Angelica’s evocation of the traditional certitudes of the church as it existed before the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. Other church figures regretted that her strident defense of orthodox Catholicism was being broadcast around the world. In an article in the National Catholic Reporter, for example, Jesuit priest Raymond Schroth decried what he perceived as a lack of intellectual sophistication on Mother Angelica’s part, pointing to her broadcast of the traditional Latin Mass, her belief in the literal reality of miracles, and her only partial acceptance of Vatican II reforms.
- Mother Angelica founds Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Alabama.
- Mother Angelica begins leading Bible study sessions in the surrounding community.
- Videotapes of Mother Angelica’s talks air on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
- Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. (EWTN) is founded, broadcasting four hours a day.
- EWTN moves to 24-hour programming.
- Shortwave radio station WEWN begins broadcasting.
- The first international satellite service is launched.
- Mother Angelica suffers strokes and undergoes surgery; Fr. Mitch Pacwa takes over her show.
- EWTN celebrates Mother Angelica’s 80th birthday; the founder is honored by the National Cable Telecommunications Association as a “Cable Television Pioneer.”
Meanwhile, EWTN continued to expand its availability around the world. In August 1995 the first international satellite service was launched, providing round-the-clock broadcasts to Europe, Africa, and Central and South America. By September 1995,40 million homes received EWTN. The network provided live coverage in both English and Spanish of the pope’s visit to several American cities that fall. In December second audio programming was added to fully accommodate a Spanish-speaking audience. The network’s name was also changed to EWTN Global Catholic Network. More expansion followed in 1996. That year EWTN acquired the Catholic Resource Network, which allowed it to place a large collection of Catholic documents online, and also added a daily radio and television news service through an agreement with Catholic World News. In May, a contract with PanAmSat provided for global satellite distribution. Shortly thereafter Mother Angelica gave the pope a map of the network’s international satellite coverage in her fourth audience with him. Services in the Pacific Rim, including Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and the Philippines, were launched in December.
Several new programs were introduced in 1997. Life on the Rock, with host Jeff Cavins, was directed at Christian youth, while The World Over, with Raymond Arroyo, provided news from a Christian perspective. A third show, The Journey Home with host Marcus Grodi, provided an opportunity for former church leaders of other Christian faiths to discuss their personal conversion experiences and the influences that brought them home to the Roman Catholic Church. Internet broadcast of the network’s worldwide AM/FM radio signal also began in 1997. Later that year another controversy arose around Mother Angelica’s objection to a pastoral letter composed by Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles. On Mother Angelica Live, the nun criticized the cardinal for paying insufficient attention to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and stated that he apparently did not believe in the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The topic was of particular concern to Mother Angelica, since her order was known for adoration of the Eucharist. The sisters in the Alabama convent, for example, went beyond the usual practice to prostrate themselves at Mass during the Eucharist prayer. Mother Angelica declared that she would not be obedient if she lived in the Los Angeles diocese, and Cardinal Mahony brought the case to the Vatican.
EWTN’s offerings grew further in the late 1990s. In 1998 the network obtained a satellite radio service license from the Radio Authority of the United Kingdom, launched direct-to-home satellite radio service in Europe on the Astra satellite, and developed satellite television service for Africa. The first live show in Spanish, Nuestra Fe en Vivo, also debuted that year, hosted by Pepe Alonso. In 1999 EWTN made its television signal available on the Internet and converted its domestic playout from tape-based facilities to digital file servers. In addition, two new Spanish services were developed: La Red Global Católica for television and Radio Católica Mundial on the radio. At the end of the year, the network provided live coverage of the pope opening the door to the Jubilee of the Year 2000. Special programming was planned over the next 13 months to honor the Jubilee.
In March 2000, EWTN offered live coverage of the pope’s historic visit to the Holy Land. In the summer of 2001 EWTN was finally approved to be carried by cable and satellite television in Canada. Canada had long been the only country in the western hemisphere besides Cuba that did not allow broadcast of EWTN, according to the network’s spokespeople. The introduction of digitalized cable, which eliminated concerns about competition for space in the radio wave spectrum, may have influenced Canada’s decision. As the network forged ahead with technological and geographic expansion, its founder was experiencing health problems. Mother Angelica had two strokes late in 2001 and underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain. She was released from the hospital early in 2002 and came home to the monastery to continue her rehabilitation. Hosting duties for Mother Angelica Live were taken over by Father Mitch Pacwa, a Jesuit priest, prolife speaker, and Catholic apologist who had been appearing on EWTN since 1984. The show was eventually renamed EWTN Live.
Mother Angelica’s vision and faith had built up a worldwide presence for EWTN. Despite her absence from involvement in the network’s day-to-day operations, as she continued her convalescence, the network she had founded remained firmly rooted in the values she had championed. In recognition of her accomplishments within the industry, the National Cable Telecommunications Association inducted her into its hall of “Cable Television Pioneers” in June 2003, shortly after the celebration of her 80th birthday. EWTN, the nonprofit dynamo she had founded, appeared likely to remain a leader among Catholic media organizations.
The Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc.; Trinity Broadcasting Network.
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—Sarah Ruth Lorenz