RIP Mother Angelica: Some media were more prepared for this big story than others

Mother Angelica probably appreciated the fact that she died yesterday -- Easter Sunday. A few savvy folks in the secular media who knew of her fame and quickly posted stories about her death.

Outside of Alabama, NBC News and the Washington Times were the quickest on the ball to note that a giant in the Catholic media world just died. The doughty nun has been bedridden the past 15 or so years but any religion reporter working in the last decades of the 20th century knew many of the details of Mother Angelica’s amazing story. 

Mother Angelica died about 5 p.m. CDT. By the time EWTN posted news about her death about 90 minutes later, media on the East Coast were wrapping things up for the night. Which is why a quick story on deadline by my former colleague Victor Morton –- who has extensive contacts in the Catholic world -- at the Times was impressive.

Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday.
The Poor Clare nun became the face of Catholic media during the Pope John Paul era by founding Eternal Word Television Network and being its most prominent on-air personality.
EWTN confirmed the death Sunday, almost 15 years after a stroke took the power of speech and the ability to appear on the air from its founder, whose formal religious name was Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation and was born Rita Rizzo. She was 92.

NBC seems to have been the first of the major networks to have a story up on their site. ABC followed with this Associated Press story.

Mother Mary Angelica, a folksy Roman Catholic nun who used a monastery garage to begin a television ministry that grew into a global religious media empire, has died. She was 92.
Known to millions of viewers simply as "Mother Angelica," the founder of the Eternal Word Television Network died Easter Sunday at the rural monastery where she lived about 45 miles north of Birmingham, according to EWTN Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael P. Warsaw.
"Mother has always, and will always, personify EWTN, the Network which she founded. In the face of sickness and long-suffering trials, Mother's example of joy and prayerful perseverance exemplified the Franciscan spirit she held so dear. We thank God for Mother Angelica and for the gift of her extraordinary life," Warsaw said in a news release late Sunday.

I should of course note the Birmingham News’ story, which came out just before 7 p.m. their time. It looks like a Sunday reporter wrote the piece with help from the paper’s longstanding religion writer Greg Garrison.

Inside the Catholic media world, here’s this Catholic News Agency report and a post by blogger extraordinaire Rocco Palmo.

As the evening wore on, more media weighed in. The Washington Post apparently had a well-researched obit –- written by a staff writer who has since left the paper –- ready to go. A sampling:

The plump nun in the ankle-length brown robe and hair-concealing white scapular, with her high-pitched voice and frequent piercing cackle, drew audiences of millions worldwide with rambling discourses on faith and the Bible, cheery fundraising pitches and humorous maxims.
“Even the Apostles had a hard time with the Resurrection, didya notice that?” she observed during a 1997 show, referring to the Resurrection of Jesus.

The New York Times also either had an obit ready to go or threw together a fairly decent article rather quickly.

Also, as you would expect, John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux quickly posted a personal reflection with this headline: "We shall not look upon the likes of Mother Angelica again." Its basic thesis: That Mother Angelica is a prime example of what it looks like when a Catholic woman generates real power in the modern world.

One of the paradoxes about Mother Angelica is that although she was generally seen as a bête noire to Catholic progressives, there’s a strong case to be made that they, too, should celebrate her.
First, she proved that an independent, lay-led enterprise can pack a greater punch than officialdom in communicating a Catholic message. She and EWTN relativized the power of the hierarchy in America, not by attacking it, but simply by showing they didn’t need it to succeed.
Second, she also showed that a woman can stand toe-to-toe with powerful clerics in the Church and give every bit as good as she got.
Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica.

Of course, not all newspapers have the staff to put together in-depth obits on file. It’s during sudden events like this that the presence of a religion reporter on deck really helps that out-of-the-starting-blocks coverage.

Please let us know if you see other news reports and essays about this extraordinary woman that will interest journalists and others who care about the religion beat.

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