WE'VE HAD the singing nun and the flying nun. Now meet Mother "Sock It To 'Em" Angelica, "the broadcasting nun."
For the past two years "Mother," as everyone in Irondale, Ala., calls her, has been producing her own television show, first at a local television station in Birmingham, now in a fully equipped station at the monastery, high in the hills above Birmingham. Now she has obtained the first FCC license ever granted to a monastic order to operate a television station.
From 7 p.m. to 11 every night beginning Aug. 15, Mother Angelica and the Eternal Word Television Network will beam the Lord's word (and the pope's as well) from Westar 3, Transponder 12, high in the new electronic heavens.
"Through Transponder 12 I can reach millions of people, from Irondale to Hawaii, from Mexico to Alaska," said Mother last month at a convention of the National Cable Television Association in Los Angeles.
Directly behind her temporary pulpit at the Southern Satellite Systems booth, a Penthouse display winked over the crowded convention floor. But pink-cheeked, silver-haired Mother appeared unruffled by abbreviated hotpants and other by-products of the cable craze.
"It's not television that's bad," she said. "It's what we put on it."
Mother chose cable because she's a little unconventional herself. (In manner and delivery, she's not unlike Ted Turner, Peck's bad boy of cable, whose lawyer, Robert Corrazini, she coincidentally shares.) Her message -- that life stinks and you need hope to get through it -- is delivered with a shrewd sense of buffoonery through comic retellings of Scripture, complete with audience laugh track and Jewish-dialogue jokes.
"The Bible is too historical," she said. " believe in telling it like it is, so the average plumber who goes home every night and bangs his head against the wall will understand."
Thirty-seven years ago Mother left a career in advertising to enter an order after a "miraculous pain" ended three years of stomac ailments that made it impossible for her to eat solid food.
"I never wanted to be a nun," Mother said. "They always looked like they had just lost their husbands to me."
In 1961, after a severe back injury, she built Our Lady of the Angels on a rock-ribbed piece of ground in Alabama's Shades Crest mountain in gratitude for regaining the strength to walk.
Mother's nuns are like Mother -- distinctive. One used to be an executive secretary at General Motors Corp. Another is Mother's own mother, who entered the order at age 62, after the death of Mother's father. (Mother calls her mother "Sister" and her mothers calls her "Mother".)
Mother's broadcasting activities evolved from a series of nondenominational afternoon counseling sessions for neighborhood housewives.
"We taped a few and people wanted copies," Mother said. "It just grew from there."
Three years ago, she was producing religious programming for the Christian Broadcasting Network at a Birmingham CBS station when the station director showed "The Word," an eight-hour mini-series which, she said, depicted Jesus as a "fake."
"I told him he made crummy programming, and that I wanted to make my own," she twinkled through heavy, inquisitorial spectacles that look like a comic prop. "He told me if I left I was finished in TV, and I told him the Lord would build me my own TV studio."
The studio, now housed in one of the many additions built by Mother Angelica since she founded the Irondale monastery 20 years ago, has a professionally built set designed like the living room of a middle-class Catholic family. Pictures of the pope and Jesus are prominently displayed, along with an Oriental rug and two Hitachi SK-96 cameras. A 30-foot mobile control center next door is manned by five full-time crew members, all in their 20s and 30s.Mother estimates she pays a staff of 17 "at scale or a little above."
Mother's programming plans are likewise ambitious. Recently she completed negotiations with Channel 25 in Rome to beam a weekly audience with the pope. She is negotiating with Radio Telefia Eiream, the national television and radio station of Ireland, for original dramatic programming dealing with modern Irish Catholic life. In addition, she plans to generate her own dramatic programming, based on Catholic family problems, as well as her current production slate of children's programming, religious music and news, a half hour of Mother Angelica herself, and Mass.
Unlike the Moral Majority, Mother doesn't plan to use her TV pulpit for political purposes. "Our network is going to dwell on spiritual and social themes, specifically the family," she said. "I don't see Jesus involved in the political process."
Eternal World programming, aimed at an ecumenical Christian audience, is being offered free to cable systems. With satellite time running approximately $60,000 per month, and other expenses expected to push the total costs to $1.5 million a year, how does Mother do it?
"The Lord provides," Mother said.
More specifically, Eternal World Television Inc., a nonprofit organization run by William Steltemeier, wealthy Nashville lawyer and ordained deacon, has drawn in $1.7 million to date from small donations sent in by Catholics all over the world. Still, Mother Angelica says she has never budgeted for more than two weeks at a time.
Mother refuses to shake a collection box via satellite.
"You never saw the Apostles ask for money," she said.
However, she is not at all averse to manipulating the collective guilt of the entertainment industry.
"There are a lot of troubled hearts involved in this rat race," she said. "We aim to find them and bring them hope, too."
A spokesman for Southern Satellite Systems said SSS leased transponder time to Eternal World because they "had no other use for it at the time."
To Mother, that's just another instance of Divine Will.
"The Lord gave the Israelites art and craft to build the Temple," she said. "The Lord is guiding and instructing us today."