- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

IRONDALE, Ala. — Twenty-five years ago, Mother Mary Angelica had a vision for Eternal Word Television Network, a channel offering nothing but Roman Catholic programming. She had little more than faith, $200 and a garage to use as a studio.

Now EWTN Global Catholic Network is available in 127 countries and more than 118 million households, and is capping a celebration of its founding in 1981. With viewers from Illinois to India, the satellite channel has grown to include radio and the Internet, and bills itself as the largest religious media network in the world.

The network will stage the last in a series of six public celebrations held across the country this weekend in nearby Birmingham, where Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the Colombian president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, will celebrate Mass tomorrow.

Still based at its original campus in a hilly suburb, EWTN has long had the blessing of the Vatican. And while critics alternately accuse EWTN of being too conservative or too liberal, it prides itself on sticking to the leadership of both Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

“People need to know what the Vatican is saying, what the pope is teaching,” said Sister Mary Catherine, a nun long associated with Mother Angelica and her religious order, the Poor Clare Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. “They hear so much it is hard to know the church’s position. EWTN straightens that confusion out.”

Sister Mary Catherine is mother vicar of the multimillion-dollar monastery where Mother Angelica lives about 45 miles north of Birmingham in the town of Hanceville. Part of a cloistered order, Sister Mary Catherine talks with visitors from behind a black steel grate that separates her from the world.

Mother Angelica, having suffered a series of strokes, is no longer able to speak at length or tape her “Mother Angelica Live” shows for EWTN. She spends her days with about 40 other nuns at the monastery and the adjoining Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a 13th century-style church built in the middle of mostly Protestant Alabama.

But Mother Angelica is still the most visible face on the network, which replays “classic” episodes of her shows weekly. Neither her name nor bespectacled image are ever far away at EWTN, where portraits and photos of the 83-year-old nun hang everywhere.

Thousands of visitors each year make pilgrimages to the media empire she founded, snapping picture after picture of control rooms, audio booths and the main studio.

“A lot of people see this as hallowed ground. It’s really kind of amazing,” said MaryAnn Plastino-Charles, creative director at EWTN. Mass is televised daily worldwide from a small chapel at EWTN, which offers radio and TV programming in English and Spanish.

On Sundays, afternoon services are televised from the huge, gilded church in Hanceville. Robotic cameras are hidden in the chancel area and ceiling, so most visitors can’t tell that the ornate sanctuary doubles as a television studio at times.

Accompanied by four relatives, Earlene Reed drove nine hours to Alabama from her home in Oakdale, La., for her second visit to the EWTN studios and the shrine. It left her in awe.

“It’s God house,” she said. “Seeing the temple gives you the same feeling as seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.”

Perhaps a sign of its influence, EWTN is under attack from both sides of the theological spectrum.

Liberal and moderate Catholics sometimes refer to the network and Mother Angelica as being mouthpieces for the church’s right wing, a worldwide force for promoting conservative Vatican policies against abortion, birth control and the ordination of women as priests.

Catholic traditionalists, meanwhile, accuse EWTN of bowing to contemporary society with a mix of rock music, modern thought and overly ecumenical teachings. Catholic lawyer Christopher Ferrara earlier this year published a scathing book titled “EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong,” which portrays the network as a threat to true Catholicism.

“EWTN is a veritable network of apostasy that is using the medium of television to give modernism a power over Catholics that it has never had before,” Mr. Ferrara, chief counsel for the American Catholic Lawyers Association, wrote in a column promoting his book.

The network, meanwhile, notes that it has its own theology department that screens everything going on the air to conform with Vatican teaching. “If there’s a book we’re going to mention, we read it first,” said Colin B. Donovan, vice president for theology.

Admirers don’t understand how anyone could criticize EWTN or Mother Angelica, a native of Canton, Ohio, who moved to Alabama in 1961 and later began taping shows for Christian networks. Convinced of the need for more Catholic programming on TV, she started EWTN on Aug. 15, 1981.

Retired Birmingham police officer Johnny Lawrence converted to Catholicism after attending tapings of her TV show 11 years ago. After a lifetime as a Protestant, he said, he was looking for a church “that was true to the Scriptures.”

The nonprofit EWTN reported $31.4 million in revenue and $32.9 million in assets on tax forms for 2004, the last year for which records are available online, and an associated catalog division reported making $3.2 million on sales of $4.8 million that year, with the profit going back to the network.

EWTN never charted a formal plan for growth. Instead, Sister Mary Catherine said, Mother Angelica and the other nuns prayed and trusted in God to provide.

Donors paid for expansions to the television and radio headquarters — which resembles nothing if not a multilevel maze — and five families gave an undisclosed amount to build the monastery and shrine, which was consecrated in 1999.

“We struggled at first. We didn’t have any money,” said Sister Mary Catherine. “Everything grew and grew, and expenses got greater and greater. As we trusted more and more, everything was taken care of.”

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