By Daisy Carrington, Contributor
August September 2005
Two years ago, Washington Post journalist Mary Jordan, introduced Mother Antonia to our readers. That same year, she and her husband, a fellow journalist at the Post, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles they wrote chronicling corruption in the Mexican prison system. Since then, the Irish-American husband-and-wife team have spent countless hours interviewing Mother Antonia, and have published her biography, The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail.
Jordan and Sullivan cover Mother Antonia’s extraordinary transformation from the Beverly Hills belle who once caught the eye of Esther Williams’ famed choreographer, Busby Berkeley — to a nun who quelled a prison riot at La Mesa in 1994 (one of Mexico’s most dangerous prisons).
In between these two drastically different stages, Mother Antonia, born Mary Clarke, was twice married and divorced (the first time to a gambler, the second to an adulterer).
It is difficult to imagine how someone raised in relative affluence could spend the remainder of her years living in a prison cell.
“We’re all in prisons,” Mother Antonia explained in a recent interview with Irish America I Mother Antonia was honored as a Top 100 Irish-American in 2004). “We’re prisoners of clothes, prisoners of makeup. There are spiritual and physical prisons that have no bar’s on them. Love can be a big one, and fear and greed are other terrible prisons; and power.” Unlike the prison the La Mesa inmates live in, Mother Antonia contends, in these prisons of the mind, “there’s no key to open that door and set you free.”
Since Mother Antonia, who sleeps on a cot in one of the prison cells, started her tenure at La Mesa in 1977, the prison conditions have improved considerably. Thanks to her many fundraising efforts, La Mesa is no longer the den of drugs and death it once was. Previously, inmates were responsible for their own living expenses, including medicine, and for many residing at La Mesa, poverty could equal death. Mother Antonia has helped to ensure that poorer prisoners are given appropriate medical care.
Though thrilled with her notoriety (she has been profiled in People magazine and on ABC’s Good Morning America), and the attention it brings to the cause of La Mesa, she isn’t overly eager to read her biography.
“The reason I’m not reading it? There’s a promise I gave to the Lord. I gave the book to the Lord, and I said `God gave to me and I gave back to God. I dedicate it to you and to man with great joy that I could be used in any way to promote love and kindness to the world.'”
Beyond the extent of her transformation, beyond her dedication to God and to kindness, Mother Antonia’s singularity is due mainly to her hypersensitive empathy. Mother Antonia recalls leaving movie theaters to sit in the lobby anytime someone was hurt on screen.
“The imaginary horror things didn’t Frighten me. Frankenstein didn’t frighten me: he was made up like a cartoon. Real people hurting other people’s feelings, or humiliating them and taking away their dignity, that frightened me.”
Her mission at La Mesa started with a dream, in which she wits surrounded by Roman soldiers and sentenced to execution. In her dream, Christ offers to take her place, but asks that she comfort Him in His final hours. She remembers Christ as faceless, and in later years, comforting the pain of thousands of prisoners, she has grown to see this dream as a premonition of her work at the prison.
“In the prison, when I’ve seen someone stretched out on a table, I’ll have my hands on each side of them. It could be a man who’s been shot, stabbed, or very sick, or a woman having a baby. I’m holding their face, and they say, `don’t go.’ and I say, `I’m never going to leave you.’ Every face would become His. It didn’t matter what the world thought of that face, how ugly or beautiful it was, but it was His face.” ♦