Friday night June 2, 2006, I drove to Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) in Birmingham from 70 miles north in Huntsville, through heavy rain and thunderstorms part of the way.
Huntsville is where NASA builds space shuttles and then flies them to their launch locations piggy backed on a big jet.
Alabama starts getting prettier with rolling hills once you get south of Huntsville, which is comparatively nondescript. I was in Huntsville for training by the company that bought the Fremont CA company I worked for, so I stayed the weekend to visit EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.
The ordinariness of the EWTN grounds -- where the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word live and where the cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration that started the station under Mother Angelica used to live -- is an interesting contrast to the immense reach the station has.
It's also amazing that a cloistered nun could launch a world wide television network, as the story goes, with no broadcasting experience and $200 in the bank. Mother Angelica was originally inspired by how little it took to communicate to a huge audience when she went to a TV studio in Texas to tape one of her talks, which used to be aired on the same channel as the 700 Club.
As the EWTN news director, Raymond Arroyo, tells the story in his NY Times best selling bio of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica said, "Lord, I've got to get me one of those." And so she did.
Located on a little campus in Irondale, north of the city of Birmingham, EWTN sees its mission is to show the beauties of the Catholic Church to the whole world and beams its programming in many languages from satellite dishes behind the station. The station covers all the major events in Rome, so that Catholics everywhere can feel more truly than ever before that they are "Roman Catholics." EWTN also has a mobile unit called Gabriel, after the archangel. Shortwave radio beams to where the TV satellite signals cannot reach.
The studios were locked up tight when I tried to get in after Evening Prayer in the chapel. Before leaving on my trip, I had tried over the Internet to sign up to see The World Over Live, but that show doesn't have a live audience.
I rang the bell, but nobody answered. Then I walked around to the back of the building chatting with one of several couples and individuals I met on the trip who said they moved to the area simply to be close to either EWTN or to the shrine. A blond middle-aged woman got out of her car in the back to go to work on the show. I greeted her and told her I had interviewed Raymond Arroyo and said I had been trying to get a hold of him to find out if I could come in and watch the show. I sent my card in with her, and she gave it to Arroyo, and then to my delight, he sent someone to bring me in.
And so it happened that I was an audience of one sitting in a chair about 6 feet away facing the set. When Arroyo came in, a slightly built man, kind of a handsomer, more intelligent version of Pee Wee Herman in a very good suit, he shook my hand and said, "We finally meet." And "You broke in, eh?"
I attribute my getting in to a few well-timed Hail Marys.
The first part of the show was taped, so Arroyo sat there watching himself do a series of quick reports on the Catholic news happening around the world, including a short about a women "priest" illicitly saying Mass in San Jose. He referred to the woman as "Father, or is it Mother? " so and so.
After that bit was over he told me he was bilocating (since he was sitting there watching himself). I said, "That's evidence of the high state of holiness you have achieved, Raymond." One cameraman laughed, and Arroyo went "Uh huh, Uh huh!" (All tongue in cheek of course.)
The rest of the show consisted of Arroyo interviewing the good bishop of Orlando about immigration, contrasting the National Council of Catholic Bishops' position about illegal aliens with a snippet from an earlier interview with Pat Buchanan who said these people are illegally taking over our country. The bishops are saying "these people" are Christ. If you ask me I'll tell you which side I'm on.
That night I stayed at Casa Maria, a large peaceful retreat center run by an order of sisters that was founded by Mother Angelica but broke away. (The story of the split between the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word and Mother Angelica is in the Arroyo book, but one of the sisters, friendly Puerto Rican Sister Ave Maria told me, "Reporters can write whatever they want, but what Arroyo wrote isn't accurate." Hmmm.)
The sisters are beautiful smiling women in full habits. I ran into them taking their large fluffy German Shepherd mix dog for a walk, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying ladders and bringing in supplies from WalMart. Sister Ave Maria posed for a photo for me wearing plastic goggles, a floppy straw hat, and an apron over her habit, armed with a bug sprayer pointed at a tree. What a cute photo that ought to be.
I met one young red headed sister, Sister Rita Marie from Boston and another young beatifically smiling sister, Sister Marie Francesca, from Mississippi, who told me she joined the order because the Holy Spirit hit her over the head with a 2 x 4.
The rooms at the center are big and modern and only cost $30 a night! What a bargain.
Saturday morning at 6 am I was in the Our Lady of the Angels chapel for Morning Prayer with the friars and then for the televised Mass at 7 a.m. As it turns out, I was in the back row on the side of the room far from the cameras, so the only time I was on TV was when I went to the front for Communion.
Later that day I went north to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament. One tourist flier for the Cullman area said the shrine is the biggest tourist attraction in Alabama these days.
Sunday, the Pentecost Mass at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville Alabama ended with the cloistered nuns behind the gold leafed reredos (altar piece) singing in a high soprano like angels "Regina Coeli Laetare. Allelulia! Quia quem meruisti portare. Alleluia! Ressurexit sicut dixit. Alleluia!"
I cried. I love that hymn so much. But then I almost always cry in church.
Queen of Heaven rejoice.
He who you merited to bear.
Has risen as He said.
We won't be hearing it again until next Easter season.
Those of you who haven't read Raymond Arroyo's bio of Mother Angelica might not know that she built a 55 million dollar shrine to the Blessed Sacrament about 70 miles north of EWTN in the Alabama countryside. The shrine was paid for by five families, and it is gorgeous. Mother Angelica saw a vision of the child Jesus tell her to build him a temple and was puzzled because she had never heard of a Catholic temple. Then she saw an inscription at St. Peter's in Rome referring to St. Peter's basilica as a temple, so she understood better what was being asked of her. At first she tried to build it with simple materials but the donating families wanted only precious materials to honor the Blessed Sacrament, which EWTN believes is being dishonored in so many Catholic churches around the world.
You reach the shrine by driving along a winding country road lined with miles of white fences in the lush green Alabama countryside. At the end of the road is a large wrought iron gate topped by angels.
On the other side of the gate, you see what looks like a huge basilica with a vast open courtyard in front. The inside is all gold and marble, and on the altar is the second biggest monstrance in the world. (For those who don't know, a monstrance -- from the Latin "monstrare -- to show" -- is a stand made of precious materials and used to display the consecrated bread that is the Body and Blood of Christ.)
The shrine is now Alabama's biggest tourist attraction. Us orthodox Catholics see it as a powerful witness for what Pope John Paul II called the new evangelization, and it's powered by prayer.
Mother Angelica and her nuns are Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and they take turns to pray constantly in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I got to share in Morning Prayer, Office of Readings, Daytime, Evening, and Night Prayer while I was there and to attend the Mass of Pentecost and say the Divine Mercy chaplet at the shrine.
Being the shy and retiring type, I walked up and introduced myself to Deacon Bill Steltemeyer, chairman of the EWTN board when I saw him in the entryway. I told him I had gotten in to see Raymond Arroyo's show the previous night even though they don't have an audience. And I told him that I had a feeling that the next thing was that I would be able to see Mother Angelica, He said it was impossible.
He told me she only gets out of bed around 11 a.m. and eats a very little, and then has to go back to bed because that uses up her energy. She continues to pray for the network, its viewers, and all the visitors. But, she has no memory, Deacon Bill said.
The owner of the St. Therese guest house where I stayed told me that Mother Angelica was singing at her 83rd birthday party last month, wearing a sombrero over her veil, but she is nearing the end of her life.
Raymond Arroyo told me in our interview a few months ago that Mother Angelica is joyful at this time in her life when she has barely anything to do with the network. His book tells how other sufferings in her life seemed to always precede success for the network, but these sufferings are different, he said. "How are they different?" I asked. "They are for her purification."
I hung around for a while thinking I was maybe going to beat the odds again and get in to see Mother Angelica like I had gotten in to see the World Over Live. I half-expected a summons to come from the cloister, but one never came. Can't trust those feelings all the time, I have to conclude.