Mornings with Mother

The future Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923, in Canton, Ohio, in a community of African-American and Italian immigrant mill workers. Of Italian American background, she was the only child of John and Mae Helen Rizzo (née Gianfrancesco). Her father, a tailor by trade, abandoned the family when Rizzo was only five and her parents divorced two years later in 1929. On March 10, 1931 her mother was granted custody of the young Rizzo, and her father ordered to pay five dollars a week in child support. Her mother only received "intermittent child-support payments from the feckless father". While maintaining full custody, her mother struggled with chronic depression and poverty. This was in part because being a divorcée carried a social stigma at the time and the opportunities for a woman to secure income were limited especially in the height of the great depression.

Looking back at her childhood, Mother Angelica described herself and her mother as being "like a pair of refugees. We were poor, hungry, and barely surviving on odd jobs before Mother learned the dry cleaning business as an apprentice to a Jewish tailor in our area. Even then, we pinched pennies just to keep food on the table." The pair lived with her maternal grandparents, moving out for a time between 1933-1937, but were forced to return because of financial pressures. Matters were complicated when her grandfather Anthony Gianfancesco suffered a stroke in their absence, which paralyzed him on one side and required him to use a cane.

Rizzo attended Canton McKinley High School, where she was one of the school's first drum majorettes. She later told an interviewer, "I did very poorly in school. I wasn’t interested in the capital of Ohio. I was interested in whether my mother had committed suicide that day." Rizzo developed no intimate friendships in high school in part because of the fear that it would further upset her mother, who might see other demands for attention as a threat. Rizzo never dated, recalling later, "I never had a date, never wanted one. I just didn't have any desire. I suppose having experienced the worst of married life, it was not at all attractive to me." In 1939, Rizzo, feeling overwhelmed by crowd noise and school chatter, began to leave McKinley High in the afternoons. She was given calcium and nerve medication to treat what was deemed a nervous condition. When her mother's mental condition seemed to get worse, she made arrangements with her grandparents to have her sent to Philadelphia to be with Rizzo's aunt Rose.