Not so long ago I drove my brother over to the East End, he was looking to buy a second hand car from someone in Bethnal Green. While he was giving the car the once over. I got chatting to the lady selling the motor. We talked about cars (obviously) we talked about foreign travel (her dad was a pilot) and we talked about books, it was apparent that she liked a good read. Then she informed me that she’d just finished the best book she’d ever read! She ran inside to get the book; came out and handed it to me. “You must read it.” she said. I did and I loved it.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winners Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, ‘The Prison Angel’ is a deeply moving account of one selfless woman’s life of compassion and conscience. It is the inspiring story of Mother Antonia’s journey from her affluent Beverly Hills lifestyle to living with and caring for, some of the poorest prisoners in Mexico’s notorious La Mesa Prison.
Mother Antonia, was born Mary Clarke in 1926. Fifty years later, she would radically change the direction of her life; swapping a life of luxury in a Beverly Hills mansion for a small cell in one of Mexico’s most dangerous and squalid jails. Here she could not only care for but also share her life with the inmates of La Mesa. Mary Clarke had walked out of her comfortable life among Hollywood A-listers and moved into a cell living next door to, drug barons, murderers, and rapists. Today, more than 30 years on and in her 80s, she still lives in that same Tijuana prison.
Mary Clarke came into the world during the hardship of the Great Depression but because of her father’s success in business, Mary grew up with Hollywood celebrities and the very wealthy as her neighbours. A beautiful blonde, she was offered a job by the renowned movie maker and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Then, in a dramatic twist that no Hollywood scriptwriter could have imagined, she responded to a Christian calling, serving the poorest of the poor in that Mexican prison.
Her metamorphosis began after a friend, hearing of Mary’s early work with the poor and disadvantaged, invited her to come down to Tijuana, Mexico. It was there that she saw more people in desperate need than she had ever seen in her life. This led her to find her true life’s work.
After taking supplies and medicines to a couple of hospitals, they went to La Mesa Jail. Mary was overwhelmed by the poverty of the prison, especially in the infirmary; here patients were compelled to lay on the floor because there weren’t enough beds. Even though it was a three-hour drive from her Los Angeles home, Mary began making regular visits to La Mesa.
In 1969, Mary had a disturbing dream. In the dream she was a prisoner about to be executed, then Jesus stepped in to be executed in her place. She saw this dream as confirmation that she should serve as a volunteer at La Mesa prison. A year later she closed the business that she had inherited from her father. Sadly also around this time, her second marriage failed.
This was a real turning point in Mary’s life. She began taking long walks on the beach, pondering her future. What would she do with the rest of her life? A decision was made. She applied to an order of nuns; she wanted to dedicate her life to working with the poor. But they refused to accept her. She was beyond the age limit of 35, and she was divorced - twice.
Finally, in the midst of her disappointment and rejection the idea grew that if she couldn’t become a nun, she would be an independent unofficial ‘sister’ - one who would live in La Mesa Prison. She had often worked at the prison late into the night and the Governor had allowed her to stay in the prison overnight. But now she decided that she would stay in La Mesa permanently.
As authors Jordan and Sullivan put it,
On March 19, 1977, Mary… woke up in her house in Ventura and slipped on a simple long-sleeve black dress and a black veil that she sewed her herself, which she thought looked ‘nunny.’ Then she stood before the mirror and disappeared. The woman looking back at her was Mother Antonia.
She then went to Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Ventura, California and took private vows of obedience, chastity, fidelity, and service. Jordan and Sullivan quote Mother Antonia:
I knew that I had been an outsider to suffering all my life. All of a sudden it occurred to me, when I step over that line and walk through that door, I became an insider with them…. Somehow the prison was the place where I finally experienced the freedom to be myself.
The authors reported:
In March 1978, Mother Antonia sold her home and moved into the prison permanently. She spent a few months in a bunk bed in the women’s cell-block, and then the warden furnished her with her own cell (carraca).
Mother Antonia had only been living in the prison a few days when a convicted rapist was viciously beaten by some fellow prisoners. Mother Antonia knelt down beside him and tried to wash the man’s wounds with a rag while saying the “Hail Mary” in Spanish. A guard told her not to waste her time, the man was a rapist, he deserved the beating. Mother Antonia couldn’t remember all the words of the “Hail Mary” in Spanish, but the beaten inmate finished the prayer for her. The guard, moved by her unconditional love, helped carry the man to a hospital bed and to clean his wounds. This was an early victory in her long crusade to persuade the guards to be more humane.
Mother Antonia didn’t remain alone for too long in her mission to help the residents of La Mesa. She made the good people of San Diego aware of the needs of the prisoners, and persuaded them to donate food and toiletries to her growing ministry.
Driving back to La Mesa one day, she had an idea how to expand her ministry – by getting free dental visits for the prisoners. She realized that many of the prisoners had lived in such poverty that they’d never had the luxury of a visit to the dentist, this hindered their chances of getting jobs because of their appearance.
She persuaded a dentist well-known in Tijuana to set up a small office in the prison. She raised the cost of his and other dental services, seeing around four thousand “new smiles.” She also persuaded a plastic surgeon, to serve ‘her boys’ by removing disfiguring marks such as knife scars and tattoos from many prisoners.
Because of her work amongst the prisoners, Mother Antonia began to meet some of the big-time drug traffickers. La Mesa was a crossroads in the Mexican-American drug trade. Her ‘clients’ included some of the major drug barons. She said,
We shouldn’t condemn them; we should condemn what they’ve done.
Those drug traffickers were far too wealthy to benefit from her offers of free toothpaste and second-hand shoes but she could influence them to see the damage and pain that their trade had inflicted on ordinary people. Amazingly, Mother Antonia was able to see a number of drug barons, get out of the drug trade and turn their lives around permanently.
She even helped some of their victims by persuading them to forgive the murders of family members. On one occasion she got down on her knees before the uncle of a murder victim, begging him to forgive his nephew’s murderer.
Two of the bravest and most inspiring incidents of her ministry were when she brought to an end, two prison riots. The first in 1989. The police raided the cells of drug dealers, still active while they were behind bars. Prisoners began throwing bottles at the police and the police responded by firing their guns. Mother Antonia walked in, right in the path of the bottles and bullets, with her hands raised high over her head. Both police and prisoners shouted at her to stay away, but she kept on walking, saying, “Mis hijos, mis hijos (my sons, my sons). Stop this. You must stop this now.” Astonishingly, the dozens of police and guards and hundreds of rioting inmates quietly put down their weapons.
Another riot erupted one October night in 1994. Prisoners in the punishment cells on the third floor had devised a plan for gaining control of the Jail. One called a guard over ostensibly to ask a question, and when the guard got close, the prisoner pinned him to the bars, took his gun and keys. Then unlocked the doors to the cells.
Mother Antonia, returning from an errand, was stopped by the assistant governor. He told her that she could not enter; it was too dangerous. She persuaded him to phone the prison governor and he initially gave the same advice. Mother Antonia persisted; she argued that it was her mission to be inside with the inmates. The governor knew that the volatile situation could easily escalate into a massacre. He also knew that the prisoners listened to her. He finally gave the order that she be allowed in.
Inside, it was dark; the guards had turned off the electricity. She made her way to the punishment cells. She heard the prisoner’s voices and called to them. She came upon an inmate she knew as “Blackie.” She fell to her knees, pleading with him. “It’s not right that you’re locked up here, hungry and thirsty. We can take care of those things, but this isn’t the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons.”
“Mother,” Blackie said softly, looking down at her. “As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window.”
With boundless energy while ministering to the inmates of La Mesa Jail, Mother Antonia also founded a women’s religious order, the Servants of the Eleventh Hour, designed to give older women the opportunity to dedicate their lives to working with the poor.
The Prison Angel is a moving and challenging real-life drama about good overcoming evil, love overcoming hatred. In a selfish age it demonstrates the power of selflessness. In our youth dominated culture it shows that people in middle and old age can have a massive impact for good.
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isaiah 61v.1)
Mother Antonia’s influence is set to go wider – after the success of the book, American film maker Jody Hammond has made a documentary about Mother Antonia’s work with Hollywood star, Susan Sarandon narrating this inspiring true story.