The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) is an international broadcasting corporation that provides religious programming on Catholic theology and devotion. Headquartered just outside of Birmingham, in the city of Irondale, the network incorporated in 1981 as a small enterprise transmitting just four hours a day and reaching only 60,000 homes. Today, EWTN broadcasts around the world with programming available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in approximately 140 countries and territories. Additionally, the channel is available online an through various streaming services.
Eternal Word Television Network EWTN’s success is due largely to the efforts of its founder, Mother Angelica (Rita Antoinette Rizzo), a Franciscan nun originally from Canton, Ohio. On a trip to Chicago in 1978, Mother Angelica visited a Baptist-run television station and saw the potential of satellite broadcasting for reaching people with her version of Christianity. She returned to Birmingham determined to use television as a medium for reaching a wider audience with her religious lectures. Lacking a broadcast studio, Mother Angelica had to start from scratch. Her friend and attorney, Bill Steltemeier, secured initial financing of the plan by providing a large private donation. She found help with the technical aspects of broadcasting from a friend who owned a sound studio and another who had some camera experience. Mother Angelica recorded her first half-hour production, titled Our Hermitage, on April 28, 1978, and sold it to the fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
Recognizing a good opportunity to supplement their otherwise all-Protestant lineup, CBN executives ordered 60 additional taped episodes. To meet the demand, Mother Angelica sought fundraising help from the Catholic Family Missionary Alliance. She then leased the services and staff of a local CBS affiliate to produce the show. Mother Angelica ended the arrangement, however, after CBS ran a controversial miniseries challenging the divinity of Jesus. Determined to continue her broadcasting efforts, she began making plans to convert a garage behind her Irondale monastery, Our Lady of the Angels, into a television studio.
Mother Angelica By 1980, the television studio was fully operational, and prerecorded programs began airing on local commercial stations as well as nationally on CBN. Despite the modest success, Mother Angelica was not satisfied with the limited distribution of taped broadcasts. She wanted to reach a national audience and realized that this would only be possible if the monastery invested in a satellite network. Again with the help of Bill Steltemeier, she founded the nonprofit civil corporation EWTN, which functioned as the umbrella organization for the broadcasting effort. Steltemeier served as president of the corporation, and board members included Birmingham residents Matt Scalici Sr. and Dick Degraff. Mother Angelica acted as CEO and chair of the board.
Financial support for the network came exclusively from private contributions, and early donations included a generous gift from mutlimillionaire industrialist J. Peter Grace. In 1981, EWTN acquired the necessary equipment and FCC license to begin operation. In August of that year, EWTN broadcast four hours of daily programming, including Catholic instructional teaching led by Mother Angelica as well as re-runs of approved secular programs such as Lassie, Robin Hood, and various Bob Hope movies. One of the networks most popular shows, Mother Angelica Live, began broadcasting in 1983. The network slowly gained credibility among cable operators, and by 1987 EWTN was broadcasting 24 hours a day. Secular content was gradually replaced in the regular lineup with a variety of teaching programs on Catholic theology, including a daily rosary and a daily mass.
In 1992, EWTN launched the world’s largest privately owned shortwave-radio broadcast facility. In 1996, the corporation established worldwide AM/FM radio service, a 24-hour Spanish-language television network that broadcast in Latin America, and television services in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Philippines. By 2002, EWTN expanded its broadcasting services to both Canada and India. Today, it is estimated that the network reaches more than 100 million homes worldwide.
Mother Angelica at EWTN Studio Mother Angelica suffered a stroke in 2001 and gradually stopped taping her live broadcasts of religious instruction. Her show, Mother Angelica Live, was replaced with Mother Angelica Classics. EWTN offers original programming that includes talk shows, children’s entertainment, teaching series on the Catholic faith, live coverage of Church events, and documentaries on Christian history and theology. Popular shows include Life on the Rock, with Father Francis Mary Stone; The Journey Home, with Marcus Grodi, and EWTN Nightly News. In addition to religious broadcasting, EWTN’s Irondale campus also hosts visitors who are seeking to participate in religious pilgrimage. There is a prayer chapel on grounds, and visitors are invited to attend a televised Mass and receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
Mother Angelica resigned as CEO and chair of EWTN in 2002 and died in March 2016. Michael Warsaw serves as president and CEO of the corporation. The entire operation continues to be supported by contributions from viewers and benefactors. There are no shares, and EWTN receives no advertising or syndication income.
- Arroyo, Raymond. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
- Lopez, Kathryn Jean. “Mother Angelica’s Empire of the Airwaves.” Crisis 19 (July-August 2001): 12-17.
- Neuhaus, Richard John. “The Case of the Uppity Nun.”First Things 83 (May 1990): 63-79.