Just over an hour from Huntsville in Hanceville, Alabama near Cullman, you can witness a magnificent shrine with an unusual story. The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery is in the middle of "nowhere." How the shrine came to be is an amazing story in itself. One acquaintance mentioned to her friend that she'd been to Europe and seen the shrines there and then said, "You don't need to go to Europe. This shrine is more magnificent than anything there."
As a Protestant, I had perhaps a different expectation and experience than my Catholic friends. I was overwhelmed by the size of the place. At first, I viewed the monastery as just another tourist attraction. I was upset that I would not be able to take pictures inside. By the time we left, I was completely awestruck and realized that pictures wouldn't do the temple justice anyway. This is one of those places that you have to experience for yourself.
We were led into a conference room just off the entrance and given an informative talk about the monastery by Brother Matthew, one of six "brothers" who live in the two-story white barn just inside the gates of the monastery. The brothers help the sisters and Mother Angelica with manual labor, landscaping, building, and lawn work.
The sisters moved into the monastery in December 1999 from their Irondale, Alabama Monastery. There are 32 nuns in the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, ranging in age from 20 to 70 years old.
Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament is a cloistered community, which means that they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and the central focal point of their lives are the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Our Lady of the Angels Monastery receives about ten calls or letters a week with requests and questions about a vocation. There is room in the Monastery for a total of 42 nuns.
The cloistered nuns need to receive special permission from the Pope to travel. With permission, Mother Angelica was traveling in Bogotá, Columbia 5 1/2 years ago. As she was going to pray one day, she saw a statue of a nine or ten-year-old Jesus out of the corner of her eye. As she passed by, she saw the statue come alive and turn towards her and say, "Build me a temple and I will help those who help you."
Mother Angelica didn't know what this meant because she had never heard of a Catholic church referred to as a "temple." Later, she found that the Temple of St. Peters was a Catholic Church and a place of worship.
When she returned from her trip, she began looking for land in Alabama. She found over 300 acres that belonged to a 90-year old lady and her children. They were not Catholics, but when Mother Angelica told her what she wanted the land to build a temple for Jesus, the lady responded, "That's a good enough reason for me."
The temple took 5 years to construct and is still being worked on. Currently, a gift shop and conference center is being built. Brice Construction of Birmingham did the work, with over 200 workers and at least 99% were not Catholic.
The architecture is 13th Century. Mother Angelica wanted the marble, gold, and cedar for the temple that God commanded David to build him in the Bible. The ceramic tile came from South America, the stones from Canada, and the bronze from Madrid, Spain. The floors, columns, and pillars are made of marble. There is a rare red Jasper marble from Turkey that was used for the red crosses in the floor of the temple. The wood for the pews, doors, and confessionals were from cedar imported from Paraguay. Spanish workers came to build the doors. The stain glass windows were imported from Munich, Germany. The Statutes of the Stations of the Cross were hand-carved.
One of the most striking parts of the temple is the gold leaf wall. There is an eight-foot stand with gold plated at the top for the consecrated host. Two nuns pray in 1 to 1 1/2 hour shifts 24 hours a day behind the gold leaf wall in the temple. The cloistered nuns purpose is to pray and worship Jesus. They pray for those who don't pray for themselves. The nuns stay focused on silence, solitude, and prayer. There is a prayer request box at the receptionist's desk and many requests are taken over the phone.
Five donors paid for the property, all the construction costs, and materials. They were already supporters of Mother Angelica and wish to remain anonymous. Mother Angelica shares that we spend fortunes on amusement parks, shopping centers, and casinos and the White House. She feels that God deserves the same quality and the best House of Prayer. There is a dress code at the monastery--no shorts, tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or mini-skirts. There are to be no pictures taken inside the shrine or any talking in the shrine. I thought I would find this directive hard to follow. However, I was so overwhelmed with the awe and beauty of the shrine and the holiness, that I couldn't have spoken if I'd wanted to.
On top of the monastery stands a cross. It was destroyed during a storm a few years ago. At first, the workers thought that it was hit by lightning. After inquiring with the weather people, they discovered that there had been no lightning or wind in that area. The top part of the cross had been cut off with a clean cut, leaving the shape of a "T." There was talk of replacing the cross. Mother Angelica found out that this "T" was the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It also stood for "God Among Us." In Ezekiel 9, this letter is a sign of favor and protection. This "T" or "tau" cross was a sign of St. Francis in the 13th Century and reflects the period of architecture of the monastery. Mother Angelica chose to leave the cross as it is and looks at it as a sign from God.
The shrine is open daily for prayer and adoration. The public is invited to attend the Nuns' Conventual Mass at 7:00 a.m. daily. Following Mass each day, confession are heard. Pilgrimages are available for groups of 10 or more.
The gift shop is open Monday through Saturday. I found this to be a very rewarding and awe-inspiring trip. Be sure to allow enough time to tour and then sit in the shrine and just pray and contemplate (all day if you like!), in this splendid temple.
The woman behind this shrine of gold, marble, and cedar is Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN Global Catholic Network.
Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio. She was the only daughter of John and Mae Helen Gianfrancisco Rizzo. Her childhood was hard. Her Catholic parents were divorced when she was six years old. She endured poverty, illness, and hard work and never really knew the carefree times of childhood. She lived with her mother and began working at an early age, assisting her mother in her dry cleaning business. She was scorned by the nuns and her classmates, not only because of her poverty but because her parents were divorced. Rita eventually left the Catholic school and attended public school instead.
Rita did poorly in school. She had little time for homework, no friends, and no social life. She found strength and solace in reading the scriptures, primarily the Psalms. The first miracle of Rita's life came when she was a young schoolgirl walking downtown. As she crossed a busy street, she heard a shrill scream and saw headlights of a car coming at her with great speed. There was no time to react. A moment later, she found herself on the sidewalk. She said it was as though two strong hands had lifted her to safety.
Rita experienced severe stomach pains for many years. She didn't want to worry her mother and hid them from her. Finally, she had to go to the doctor. She was diagnosed with severe calcium deficiency. Her mother had heard of a woman who had been miraculously healed by Jesus. She took Rita to see Rhoda Wise and have her prayer over her. Mother Angelica sees that as a pivotal point in her life. After nine days of prayer and asking the intercession of St. Therese, known as the Little Flower, Rita was healed. She began to pray at every opportunity, oblivious to things going on around her. After work, she'd go to St. Anthony's church and pray the stations of the cross.
In the summer of 1944, while praying in the church, she had the "unquestioning knowledge" that she was to be a nun. She had a hardy dislike of nuns from her early school years and at first, could not believe it. She sought her pastor and he confirmed that he had seen God working in her life and urged her to be obedient to God's special call. She first visited the Josephite Sisters in Buffalo. The nuns welcomed her and talked with her. After getting to know her, they felt she was better suited for a more contemplative order. On August 15, 1944, Rita entered St. Paul's Shrine of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland. She sent the news to her mother by registered mail, knowing that it would upset her.
On November 8, 1943, Rita's mother went to her investment ceremony--her wedding day to Jesus. Mae Rizzo was given the honor and privilege of selecting Sister Rita's new name: Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.
In 1946, when a new monastery was to be opened in Canton, Ohio, Sister Angelica was asked to move there and help with it. She would once again be near her mother. The pain and swelling in her knees, which had concerned the nuns about her ability to receive first vows, disappeared on the day she left Cleveland for Canton.
After suffering from a fall and ending up in the hospital and unable to walk, Sister Angelica faced the possibility of never walking again. She cried out to God, "You didn't bring me this far just to lay me out on my back for life. Please, Lord Jesus, if you allow me to walk again, I will build a monastery for your glory. And I will build it in the South."
Mother Angelica and some of the other sisters of Santa Clara devised money-making schemes to pay for this new monastery in the South--the Bible Belt, where Baptists were the majority and Catholics were only 2 percent of the population. One project that proved profitable was making fishing lures. On May 20, 1962, the Irondale, Alabama community of cloistered nuns dedicated Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. After founding the EWTN Global Catholic Network, writing many books, and sharing her knowledge around the world, Mother Angelica build the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and moved the community to the Hanceville, Alabama Monastery in December 1999.