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The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail

The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail

4.8 9
by Mary Jordan

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The winners of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting tell the astonishing story of Mary Clarke. At the age of fifty, Clarke left her comfortable life in suburban Los Angeles to follow a spiritual calling to care for the prisoners in one of Mexico's most notorious jails. She actually moved into a cell to live among drug king pins and petty thieves. She


The winners of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting tell the astonishing story of Mary Clarke. At the age of fifty, Clarke left her comfortable life in suburban Los Angeles to follow a spiritual calling to care for the prisoners in one of Mexico's most notorious jails. She actually moved into a cell to live among drug king pins and petty thieves. She has led many of them through profound spiritual transformations in which they turned away from their lives of crime, and has deeply touched the lives of all who have witnessed the depth of her compassion. Donning a nun's habit, she became Mother Antonia, renowned as "the prison angel," and has now organized a new community of sisters-the Servants of the Eleventh Hour—widows and divorced women seeking new meaning in their lives. "We had never heard a story like hers," Jordan and Sullivan write, "a story of such powerful goodness."

Born in Beverly Hills, Clarke was raised around the glamour of Hollywood and looked like a star herself, a beautiful blonde reminiscent of Grace Kelly. The choreographer Busby Berkeley spotted her at a restaurant and offered her a job, but Mary's dream was to be a happy wife and mother. She raised seven children, but her two unfulfilling marriages ended in divorce. Then in the late 1960s, in midlife, she began devoting herself to charity work, realizing she had an extraordinary talent for drumming up donations for the sick and poor.

On one charity mission across the Mexican border to the drug-trafficking capitol of Tijuana, she visited La Mesa prison and experienced an intense feeling that she had found her true life's work. As she recalls, "I felt like I had come home." Receiving the blessings of the Catholic Church for her mission, on March 19, 1977, at the age of fifty, she moved into a cell in La Mesa, sleeping on a bunk with female prisoners above and below her. Nearly twenty-eight years later she is still living in that cell, and the remarkable power of her spiritual counseling to the prisoners has become legendary.

The story of both one woman's profound journey of discovery and growth and of the deep spiritual awakenings she has called forth in so many lost souls, The Prison Angel is an astonishing testament to the powers of personal transformation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A towering, uplifting tale of genuine conscience and the discovery of true joy in selflessness." —Bob Woodward

"No one will be untouched by this remarkable book about a remarkable woman." —The Washington Post Book World

"An unflinching, plainspoken and deeply empathetic book." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Mary Clarke, the woman they call "Mother Antonia," has led two lives. Born in Beverly Hills in 1926, she grew up amidst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. She married twice and raised five children; then, in the late '60s, she felt herself called to do charitable work in the ghastly prisons of Tijuana. For ten years, she shuttled between Los Angeles and Mexico, feeling an ever-growing commitment to the plight of the women inmates. Then, one day, while visiting La Mesa prison, "the worst of the worst," she had a life-changing experience: "I don't know why, but when I went into that prison, I felt like I had come home." She convinced the prison warden to allow her to move into a cell in the prison. On March 19, 1977, she moved in, sleeping on a bunk with female convicts below and above her. She has never left. This is her story, told by a Pulitzer Prize–winning husband-and-wife writing team.
Lauren F. Winner
Of course, not everyone will close The Prison Angel and decide to move to La Mesa. But no one will be untouched by this remarkable book about a remarkable woman.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
This Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife reporting team looks at humanitarian Mother Antonia's work with the discerning eyes of seasoned journalists, giving us a story that both delves into her legendary spiritual counseling at a Mexican prison and helps us understand the nature of her work. The story of how Mary Clarke, a twice-divorced mother of seven, abandoned her affluent life in Los Angeles to work and live in a prison in the drug-trafficking capital of Tijuana is all the more compelling because it is not sensationalized. The authors relate the circumstances of prison life in the same matter-of-fact way that Mother Antonia (as she comes to be called) embraces them. Mother Antonia wages an unfailing battle to help everyone-criminal and victim alike-get such necessities as food, supplies, and dental work and presses for fundamental changes to the Mexican justice system. For 27 years, this extraordinary woman has been living in a prison cell in La Mesa trying to change the culture of the place from the inside. Thanks to the authors, this astonishing story of how one woman's journey of spiritual growth has transformed innumerable lives is now available as an inspiration to all. Highly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Sheila Peiffer, Acad. of the Holy Names, Albany, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine Sister Helen Prejean speaking Spanish. Reporting duo Jordan and Sullivan-Washington Post writers who won the Pulitzer for a series of articles on the Mexican justice system-tell the life story of the extraordinary Mother Antonia, a Catholic sister who lives with and serves the inmates at Tijuana's La Mesa prison. Mother Antonia is remarkable not only for the constant, countless works of service and mercy she performs, but also because of her background. She grew up well heeled in Beverly Hills and married twice, survived two divorces and reared seven children before moving to the prison. Her strong call to serve the downtrodden began when, unfulfilled by motherhood, her mediocre second marriage and a dull day job, Mother Antonia-then known by her given name, Mary-began collecting clothes and medical supplies that were sent to help the needy in Korea. She excelled in her charity work, and her reputation as an angel of mercy grew. In 1965, a priest acquaintance took her to visit La Mesa. The trip turned into a calling, and Mary, who could not get the suffering Mexican prisoners off her mind or out of her heart, began visiting La Mesa more and more frequently, sometimes spending the night. In 1977, after her second marriage fell apart and her children had grown up, she decided to don a habit and move to the prison. The second half of the story, which chronicles Mother Antonia's work at La Mesa, drags a little. Admittedly, her good deeds are breathtaking: she convinces Mafia drug-lords to come clean; she gets food, glasses and toilet paper for the prisoners; she helps wrongfully incarcerated men go free. But chapter after chapter of this litany of good works grows tedious-unlike thefirst half, which culminates in Mary's move to Tijuana, the second has no change, turning point, tension or climax. Inspiring, if a touch hagiographic. Author tour

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

In early 2002, we asked a young woman on Islas Marías, a prison in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles off the Mexican coast, how she liked being an inmate there. She bubbled on about the beautiful ocean setting and the fresh air, and she said it was sure better than the last prison she'd been in. She had come from La Mesa prison in Tijuana, the border city across from San Diego, where she said the conditions were brutal.

"The only good thing about that place was that Irish nun," she said.

Come again?

She told us about a nun, an Irishwoman she said, who lived in a cell alongside the inmates, helping to feed and clothe them and protect them from abuse by guards.

"I miss talking to her," she said.

We wrote ourselves a note: Find nun who lives in prison.

A few weeks later, we stood outside the imposing front gate of La Mesa, a fortress of twenty-five-foot walls in the middle of a downtown Tijuana neighborhood.

Mother Antonia came to greet us at the gate, a cheery little woman in a black-and-white habit.

We sat with her, and she told us about her life, about how she was raised as a well-off girl in Beverly Hills with neighbors like Spencer Tracy. (She turned out to be Irish American.) She talked about how she spent three decades as a suburban mom in Los Angeles, raising seven children.

She told us about poor people locked up for years for stealing food, about the famous drug dealers whose bullet-blasted bodies she had washed and dressed for burial. We listened, and we were hooked. Together, we have been interviewing people as journalists for more than forty years. We have interviewed presidents and rock stars, survivors of typhoons in India, and people tortured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. We had never heard a story quite like hers, a story of such powerful goodness. This was a tale that needed telling.

For starters, we wrote a story about her life that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post on April 10, 2002. In the weeks that followed, letters and e-mails came pouring in. People wanted to know how to help her. A gay Catholic man wrote to say his faith had been renewed by the story of how a divorced woman had not let the church's rules diminish her faith. An old boyfriend, who had not seen her since World War II scuttled their plans for a life together, saw the story and wrote to her-in care of the prison-and they talked for the first time in fifty-seven years. Kathleen Todora, a widow from Louisiana, read the story, packed her bags, and drove to Tijuana to join Mother Antonia's mission.

That response confirmed what we already knew: Mother Antonia was rare, and those whose lives are touched by hers are affected forever. She gets under your skin, and she changes you, whether it's seeing a little more humanity in a street beggar, or no longer being able to look at a Starbucks caffe latte without imagining how much better that four dollars could have been used.

This book is a work of journalism, not an "as told to" story. Mother Antonia is the first to say she isn't perfect. She has struggled with real life problems; she has known the highs of marrying for love and lows of divorce when that love dies. Suffering from poor health for a lifetime, she has ignored her ailments, grabbed hold of her gifts, and used them to do extraordinary things. She is the happiest person we have ever met.

For almost three years, we have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Mother Antonia. We gave her a tape recorder and tapes and asked her to tell us the stories of her life. We have sat with her in the prison and in her small house nearby filled with an eclectic mix of women: inmates just leaving the prison; women receiving cancer treatments; and mothers, daughters, and girlfriends who have come long distances to visit men in prison and have no money to stay anywhere else.

We have also talked about Mother Antonia with her friends, family, bishops, inmates, guards, wardens, police chiefs, DEA agents, Army generals, and even Benjamín Arellano Félix, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers. In all possible instances, we have checked and double-checked their stories with witnesses, public records, old newspaper clippings from the Library of Congress, and even in an eye-opening interview with an ultrasecret DEA informant we were introduced to only as Comandante X. We have been amazed at the accuracy of Mother Antonia's memories, even those from a half-century ago. She remembered Eddie Cantor's street address from the 1930s. And she remembered it right.

People of all faiths, or of no faith, are drawn to Mother Antonia's message of inclusion. She loves the Catholic Church, but not all its rules. She wears over her heart a cross interlaced with the Star of David, a symbol of her devotion to the Jewish faith and the lesson she learned from the Holocaust as a young girl, that no one should stand by silently in the face of suffering. Some of her most generous financial supporters are Evangelical Christians in California. Mother Antonia thinks God doesn't check IDs at Heaven's gate.

In the end, this is the story of a woman who followed a dream later in life. She was fifty when she traded suburban Los Angeles for La Mesa. Mother Antonia's hope is that she will be joined by more and more women, and someday also men, who are looking for ways to give meaning to their later years. She believes that the world is full of older people with long experience who now want to help others. We think she's right. Especially since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and all that has followed, we think more people are looking for a way to do something to make the world a little warmer.

A couple of mechanical points.

Mother Antonia is occasionally referred to in the book as Sister Antonia. It's a linguistic difference. In English, we are used to calling members of Catholic religious orders Sister. In Spanish, the more common expression is Madre-mother. To all her Mexican friends, she is La Madre Antonia. We have preserved that here, while letting English-speakers call her Sister Antonia.

When we use the authorial "we," it means that one of us, or both, saw or heard whatever is being described. It would be too distracting to write, "she said to Kevin," or, "Mary saw." We could never get away with such imprecise attribution in The Washington Post. But in our marriage, "we" has come to mean either or both of us. And for the sake of kindness to our readers, "we" means that here, too.



A riot rages inside La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. It's Halloween night, 1994, and the twenty-five hundred convicts locked inside one of the country's most violent and overcrowded prisons are struggling, as they do every day, to live one more.

Sixteen men are locked in a block of punishment cells on the third floor. They are there for insulting guards, fighting with other prisoners, breaking the rules. They've been here for days, some for weeks. They are agitated and angry. There is never enough food in these cells, there are never enough blankets for the cold nights. It's filthy. Worst of all, visitors aren't allowed up here. No place in the prison is harsher than these fetid punishment cells, and it's never been worse than tonight. The men can hear parties for Day of the Dead ringing from homes just outside the walls. It's one of Mexico's biggest days of the year, a big, happy, noisy family celebration honoring the departed. Families are together at home or in decorated graveyards filled with light and music and tequila and the hottest, sweetest bread you can imagine, and here they are, stuck in the hole.

It's too much, just too damned much. The prisoners come up with a plan. Someone calls a guard over to ask him a question. When he comes close enough, arms quickly pass through the bars and grab him, pinning him there and taking his gun and his keys. The prisoners quickly free themselves, then grab another guard and his gun, too. They tell the guards to get the hell out, then they set mattresses on fire in the cellblock and start shooting into the air out the windows.

Fearing the worst, the guards abandon their posts and shut off the electricity. Much of the prison now belongs to the inmates, and it's completely dark except for the flames rising from the top-floor windows. Outside in the crowded neighborhood of modest concrete homes that has grown up around La Mesa, people see the fire and hear the gunshots for blocks.

Police in riot gear show up. SWAT teams assemble on the streets. Television cameras set up quickly. Mothers and girlfriends of prisoners have come running, and they are watching a small army preparing to storm the prison.

"My son, my son, what are they going to do to him?" one woman wails.

Then into the darkness comes a tiny woman in a white habit.

She has clear white skin and round cheeks, and her smile seems to start in her bright blue eyes then spread across her face until it glows. She looks so happy.

"¡Madre! ¡Madre!" the desperate women call out, holding out their arms and running to her.

Everyone knows her. She is Mother Antonia. She's the American sister who lives in a cell and shivers in the same cold showers as the prisoners. She calls the men mis hijos, my sons, and brings a mother's love to some of Mexico's most forgotten. There are rumors that she was rich once, maybe even a millionaire or a movie star. Nobody really knows exactly where she came from or why, but they know she will help them, and they know the prisoners trust her more than anybody else.

Mother Antonia was on an errand outside the prison when she heard about the trouble and has come rushing back to her adopted home, with its imposing walls and guard towers. She hears the ominous snaps and clacks of ammunition being loaded and smells the acrid fire. Terrified women mob her.

"Calm down," she says. "This is not the time to be screaming. The men can hear you in there. They're going to be all right, but you need to pray, not yell. Everything will be all right. I'm going to go inside to see your sons-my sons-right now."

The television cameras record it all and follow her as she turns and walks toward the darkened prison entrance. The warden, Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo, is out of town. His assistant stops her at the office by the gate.

"I can't let you go in there, Mother. It's too dangerous right now."

She insists. She demands that he call her friend Duarte. She is sure he will give permission for her to go inside. It is her home and her life. She is needed in there now. He calls, and she tells Duarte she wants to talk to her hijos and persuade them to end the violence.

"No, Mother, you can't go in. It's too dangerous," he says on the other end of the phone.

"Jorge, you know my mission is to be in there right now," she says. "This isn't a time to back out."

Jorge Duarte knows the prisoners listen to her. He also knows that she is right, that a massacre could well be in the making; it has happened too many times before. He gives the order to let her in.

A guard unlocks the door and lets her pass

It is black dark inside. She is alone, walking slowly down empty hallways, feeling her way along a route she knows so well. She can hear the shots and smell the smoke from upstairs. When the lights went out, some prisoners had run to their cells while others hid under tables and behind doors. Now they come out, surprised to see Mother Antonia instead of riot police.

"Mother, what are you doing in here?" one asks her.

First one, then five, then more prisoners gather around her in the darkness. They tell her that she should get out, she could be killed. Don't worry, she tells them, I'll be safe. She leads the men, mostly poor young Catholic Mexicans raised to worship God and their mothers, into the small chapel off the prison yard. She kneels and prays out loud for angels to protect everyone in the prison. Then she rises and heads out the door, an inch at a time in the darkness, toward the punishment cells.

She shuffles her feet carefully along the prison's cement floor, her outstretched hands feeling the way along the walls. Finding the stairway leading up, she realizes she is not alone in the blackness. The men have stayed with her. She doesn't know if there are five or fifty, but she feels them and hears them all around her like a human shield. She is the closest thing to heaven most of them have ever seen, this woman who brings them pillows and pure white bandages, who keeps the guards from beating them, who never stops hugging them and telling them they are loved. They call her Mother. And they are going to take a bullet rather than have La Madre die tonight.

She can feel the heavy black metal doors of cells as she passes them. The screams and shooting are close now, the smoke is sharp in her eyes and lungs. She calls out to the men in the punishment cells.

They are shocked to hear her.

"Don't shoot! Mother's here!" they yell.

"Mother Antonia! Get out of here. You'll be killed!" one inmate shouts. "Please, go. You'll be shot!"

She doesn't stop. She moves forward toward their voices.

"What's going on here? The whole city is terrified," she says. "Your mothers and girlfriends and children are outside crying. Please stop. There's an army out there getting ready to come in."

She tells them that if they don't put down their weapons, more children will be orphaned, including their own. Think of your parents crying at another family funeral, she pleads. Her voice is warm, convincing, and urgent, and it suddenly changes the ugly night.

The metal door to the punishment cell block opens. She can now see a bit by the light of burning mattresses. Her white clothes are singed with ash. An inmate she knows as Blackie steps forward from the shadows.


She pushes her way inside like a running back.

"C'mon, C'mon. Give me the guns. Give me the guns right now. I'm not going to let you get hurt. I'm not going to let them hurt you and punish you. Give me the guns."

"Mother," Blackie says. "We've been up here so long they've forgotten us. The water's gone, and we're desperate."

Mother Antonia falls to her knees in the smoky hallway. She is right in front of Blackie, looking up at him with her hands held out, palms up, 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 says softly, looking down at her. "As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window."

Mother Antonia walks Blackie downstairs to the gate, shouting to the guards and police that he is coming out, unarmed. Duarte has hurried back from Mexicali, a nearby city, and arrives at the prison just in time to see Mother Antonia and Blackie emerge from the darkened yard. They all sit in Duarte's office, and he listens to Blackie's long list of complaints. The two men agree to a settlement. Blackie promises an end to the violence. Duarte promises better conditions. The lights come back up in the prison. The riot police pack up and leave.

Mother Antonia emerges through the prison's front gates. The mothers and wives and daughters rush to hug her close; this time their tears are from joy.

"Why were the prisoners so angry?" one television reporter shouts.

Mother Antonia turns to face the cameras.

"They just wanted to be free," she says, her white habit shining in the hot glare of the lights. "They just wanted to be free."

There is more to the story. But she knows this isn't time to tell it. For the moment, she just turns and disappears into the night, back to her cell.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A towering, uplifting tale of genuine conscience and the discovery of true joy in selflessness." —Bob Woodward

"No one will be untouched by this remarkable book about a remarkable woman." —The Washington Post Book World

"An unflinching, plainspoken and deeply empathetic book." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Meet the Author

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, a husband and wife team, report from Mexico for The Washington Post. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for stories about the lack of the rule of law in Mexico and the horrific conditions in the Mexican criminal justice system. Formerly the Post's correspondents in Tokyo, they also won a George Polk Award in 1998 for their reporting about the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Overseas Press Club of America.

Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, a husband and wife team, report from Mexico for The Washington Post. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for stories about the lack of the rule of law in Mexico and the horrific conditions in the Mexican criminal justice system. Formerly the Post's correspondents in Tokyo, they also won a George Polk Award in 1998 for their reporting about the Asian financial crisis, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Overseas Press Club of America.

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The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Inspiring! !!
RN More than 1 year ago
After raising seven children and going through two divorces, the Catholic church didn't think she had anything to offer to a religious order. So she decided to do her own thing. By wearing a nun's habit, she was able to make the Catholic church look good. They finally put their stamp of approval on her mission after more than 20 years of selfless service to Tijuana inmates and their families.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this twice and bought copies to share. I can't even describe how wonderful and heartwarming this book is. It truly inspires me and makes me want to do more to help others. I loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"The Prison Angel" was a story that inspires. To go through life in a typical (although initially privileged) manner, and make such a dramatic change, I found fascinating. Choosing to serve in a foreign country while attempting to be useful, and learn a new language is quite an ambitious undertaking. Being called "Mother," and held in such high regard by strangers shows what a beautiful person Mother Antonia is. The sacrifices made by Mother Antonia, and her family seemed so easy although must have been quite difficult. She had such faith which allowed her to repeatedly take chances with her life most of us would not. I would highly recommend this book to all. I would not label as a "religious" book only.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
By far this book will change your life. Not only is Mother Antonia an amazing giving person, she has put her life and the life of her entire family on the line to help complete strangers. This book HAS to be read by readers of all ages. Absolutely the best book ever. It will change your life for the better!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i am a high school teen that enjoys reading, i have never read a book that has moved me to tears. The books has changed my opion on life. No I am not moving to La Mesa bodily but my prayers will always be there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a remarkable depiction of a woman that you will end up feeling like you actually know and you will undoubtedly end up admiring her and her work. Her attitude and philosphy on forgiveness is a lesson that we should all take to heart. In addition to being inspirational, however, it is also a terrific read that you will be unable to put down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Incredible story of a women who personifies Christ here on earth. Leaving every imaginable personal and financial comfort behind, she goes to one of the most violent, corrupt, and filthiest prisons on earth to give comfort to the men and women who work and are detained there. Through her work she has changed the culture of torture and violence in prisons throughout Mexico. She has saved many lives, including mine. Robert Cass, La Mesa Prison 5/86-11/90