Tijuana’s ‘Prison Angel’,79, is Mama to inmates
Published: March 2, 2006 | 3655th good news item since 2003
The red-faced woman barely rose above the wood podium in Mother of Good Counsel’s parish hall. Her words rushed from her mouth, with thoughts jumping from story to story, as she told engrossed auxiliary members of the Mission Doctors Association about her 29 years in an infamous Mexican prison.
Although she talked passionately of forgiveness, redemption and personal transformation, the former Granada Hills, Calif., housewife – who grew up in Beverly Hills with movie star neighbors like William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, John Barrymore and Dinah Shore – had not served serious time for running drugs, transporting illegals across the border or even murdering her husband.
No, Mother Antonia had voluntarily lived in a concrete cell at La Mesa state penitentiary almost 30 years ago for a radically different reason – to bring the good news of Christian hope and salvation to thousands of criminals.
During those three decades, which followed two failed marriages and seven children, the former Mary Clarke has brought prisoners food, clothing, pillows, blankets, bandages and medicine.
She has paid off their fines so they could be released and bought them bus tickets back to their hometowns and villages. She’s arranged for inmates to see a doctor or dentist. She has broken up brutal fights in the yard and kept aggressive guards from beating inmates.
Feeling good about giving
But most importantly, the gregarious 5’2″ nun has never stopped hugging prisoners, and telling them how much they are loved.
Living with thousands of men and women, day in and day out, has taught Mother Antonia a thing or two about giving, too.
To give is a joy; it is a joy,” she declared. “Everybody who goes out to work at the Red Cross or St. Vincent de Paul or at a church or in a prison comes back happy. Why not? They are giving of themselves to others
When I was in Washington recently, I took off my gloves and gave them to a woman who was cold,” she reported. “I felt so good about that. I mean, that warms your heart instead of your hands.”
The 79-year-old woman talked about being a teenager and visiting her father’s office one day in Hollywood. A hobo came by saying he had slept in a boxcar the night before and begging a quarter. The wife of a salesman present said nobody should give him money, but instead just buy a bottle of wine for the bum and his pals.
Seventeen-year-old Mary felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment for the down-and-out interloper. It was lucky for the salesman’s wife that her father was not around, she thought to herself. Because the altruistic businessman, Joseph Clarke, would never allow anyone to “bring down” a poor person.
Inspired by Monsignor Brouwers
Mother Antonia also spoke of another major life influence: Msgr. Anthony Brouwers. In the 1950s, the director of the archdiocese’s Society for the Propagation of the Faith founded the Mission Doctors Association along with the Lay Mission-Helpers.
She read his column in The Tidings, and finally sought his counsel for a relief effort to feed Korean children she was working on. He became her friend as well as spiritual advisor until he died of bone cancer in early 1964.
“He was my inspiration, and I took his name,” she pointed out to the auxiliary members. “I think, all the time, that one of the reasons I’ve had so many wonderful things happen in my years in prison, where I experienced so much giving and loving, is because God has blessed me because I had monsignor’s name. I think he’s my advocate in heaven.”
She spoke of an 18-year-old boy who was shot on Good Friday, March 24, 1978, by a guard at La Mesa. After X-rays were taken, doctors said the spinal injury was so severe the prisoner would be paralyzed from the waist down.
She prayed to Monsignor Brouwers, pleading that because of his own debilitating bone cancer he knew what it was like to be a paraplegic and not be able to walk. By Easter Sunday, the inmate walked out of the hospital.
“I don’t know what you call a miracle,” she observed. “I’ve seen so many of them during my years in prison. But the fact was, that was a beautiful miracle that I believe came from heaven through Monsignor Brouwers.”
‘Mama’ still ministering
Going on 80, Mother Antonia is still living at La Mesa, seeking the intercession of the hard-working priest who inspired her all those years ago.
Her ministry – which was chronicled last year in the book “The Prison Angel” by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondents for The Washington Post – is pretty much the same. She focuses on both the practical and spiritual needs of the prisoners, who call out “Mama!” when she walks among them in her white veil and black-and-white habit.
In addition, she started a halfway house (Casa Campos de San Miguel) for newly-released women prisoners, and cancer victims.
And she often spends a night or two on weekends at the nearby convent of the small congregation she formed (Eudist Servants of the 11th hour) of like-minded older women who feel a late vocation to enter religious life. The foundress likes to refer to herself and the other women religious as “lay missionary sisters.”
What has been changed has been me,” she told The Tidings after her talk. “I’m going to be 80 this year, and the years take a toll on you. Now I can’t run from one section of the prison to the other like I used to. I have a heart condition, and when I get back from the prison, I have to lie down because I’m exhausted.”
But Mother Antonia is not ready to give up her cell, which was given to her by a Mexican governor. She sleeps on a fold-out bed.
“I only know that my presence is positive and does some good there,” she confides. “So as long as it does that, I remain. Because I know that I’m needed. I might be in my room, but, see, when you’re a person with love in your heart for God, it goes out. And the whole prison knows I’m there. They know ‘Mama’s here.'”