The Incredible Story of Mother Angelica and St. Peter’s Fishing Lures
By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson
One of the most amazing fishing tackle stories of all-time centers on a group of Franciscan nuns in Ohio who decided to go into the tackle business. Calling their lures “St. Peter’s Fishing Lures,” they manufactured and sold a line of 16 different lures, ranging from worms and jigs to bucktails and plugs. Their amazing story, and the life of one of the most influential women of the 20th century, is told here.
One of the first mentions of this fascinating enterprise came from a Carl Barnhart newswire item, reprinted here from the 29 May 1961 Southern Illinoisian that read as follows:
A group of Franciscan Nuns in Ohio has gone into the fishing lure manufacturing business. All profits will go to their church. These lures will be called the St. Peter’s Fishing Lures—after the Big Fisherman. They have 16 worms, jigs, bucktails, and plugs. I’m told that each lure is sold with a built-in prayer for the user to have good fishing. I’m sure there are days when each of us can use all the help we can get.
Who were these enterprising nuns? How and why did they decide to get into the tackle business? Was this venture a success, or like most tackle businesses, a failure? The story is one of the neatest forgotten tales in the history of tackle manufacturing.
The genesis (pun intended) behind these piscatorial St. Peters was a remarkable nun by the name of Mother Mary Angelica who was a member of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, a Franciscan Order in Canton, Ohio. Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, she joined the order in 1953 and while living at the Santa Clara Monastery there, dreamt of opening a monastery in the deep South. She was told that not only would she have to raise the money for the monastery, but it would have to be self-supporting afterward—an almost impossible task for the time.
Undaunted, in 1958 Mother Angelica hit on an idea. “It was while I was praying,” she noted in an interview in The Family Weekly in 1962, “that I got an idea for making money for the new monastery.” The original idea? Sell fishing bait. She approached the Mother Superior with the idea of raising red worms for bait, but was immediately shot down. Undaunted, Mother Angelica prayed again—and the idea of manufacturing and selling fishing tackle was born.
The Franciscans gave their approval, but no one expected much. After all, how much money could be made selling fishing lures for .75 each? But Mother Angelica understood marketing. Before joining the cloister, she had worked in the advertising business, and used that experience to come up with an idea so audacious many thought her crazy.
She would fund the construction and maintenance of the new monastery through the sale of fishing lures.
Quietly she assembled a team of five nuns to construct the lures; a local tackle maker donated the parts. They tested the lures in a bathtub and were pleased with the results. They were also able to manufacture as many as seven baits each per hour, or almost 300 baits per day. “At first our fingers showed the results of handling sharp hooks,” she noted, “but we soon got the knack of it.” Keep in mind that she suffered a debilitating accident that kept her in a hospital for two years back in the 1950s, and which caused her to walk with a cane and braces for the remainder of her life.
She also knew she needed something to differentiate the St. Peter Lures from the competition. Thus she hit on the idea that every lure made would be sent out with the following blessing:
"We pray that fishermen will have big catches, will learn to fish with the Great Fisherman, and will be protected from accidents."
Having found her hook (pun intended again), Mother Angelica used her advertising connections and got a friend in the business to print 5000 circulars. Then she hit up every outdoor columnist she could find, who penned a number of articles on her venture.
To the great shock of everyone, she was flooded with orders from every corner of the country, and from celebrities including baseball and angling legend Ted Williams. As the article declared:
Thousands of lures have since been mailed from the monastery. They come in a dozen varieties, for spinning or casting in either fresh or salt water. "Little Jonas" is the name given one number; others are called "St. Michael Wet-Fly" and "St. Raphael Dry-Fly"
In 1961 the esteemed Sports Illustrated, which at the time published many articles on angling, even honored her with an award for “special contributions to the sport.”
The most amazing thing about her venture? Within two years she had raised enough money to help construct a new monastery in Alabama, specifically designed to cater to African-Americans in this most critical period in Civil Rights history. In 1962, when the monastery was completed, she transferred the entire St. Peter’s Fishing Lure company to Alabama, in accordance with the charge to make it “self-sustaining.” The Our Lady of the Angels Monastery was officially established in Irondale, Alabama on May 20, 1962.
From the picture, it appears that some of the fishing lures sold by St. Peter's Fishing Lures were knock-offs of famous baits such as Helin's Flat Fish as well as a selection of spinners and worms that were popular at the time. The author has not seen any lures from St. Peter's but would love it if anyone who has one would send in a photo so we could see what one of these lures looked like.
As for Mother Angelica, she rose to dizzying heights. Soon after moving to Alabama, Mother Angelica got out of the fishing lure business to concentrate on working with the poor, and eventually, a budding second career. Many of you might recognize her in a later photograph, for Mother Angelica went on to found the Eternal World Television Network (ETWN), which ran a television show she starred in for decades afterward, making it the most watched religious network in the world. Time Magazine in a feature article in 1995 called her “arguably the most important Catholic woman in America.” She authored over 50 books during this time.
Mother Angelica retired from broadcasting in 2003, but still lives in the Birmingham monastery she constructed with the funds from St. Peter’s Fishing Lures, perhaps the least likely tackle manufacturing firm in the history of America. While her later years were embroiled in controversy, in our particular case we can remember her for being not only an influential Catholic voice but also as a tackle maker with an unforgettable history. After all, how can anyone forget the story of the “Fishing Lure Nun?”
You can read a great deal about the non-fishing tackle career of Mother Angelica in the following articles:
The Odyssey of Mother Angelica by William A. Donohue (note some of the information on her tackle connection is erroneous).
Mother Knows Best in Time Magazine (1995).
A short Encyclopedia of Alabama article on Mother Angelica.
-- Dr. Todd