On Mother’s Day, 1990, at an outdoor Mass in Chihuahua City, Mexico, Mother Antonio knelt before Pope John Paul II, who blessed her and gave her a rosary. How had this twice-divorced mother of seven become a nun who has lived in and worked for thirty years from a prison cell in La Mesa, the notorious Tijuana prison?
While investigating the Mexican criminal justice system, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondents Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan heard stories about an Irish American nun who lived at a prison and helped everyone. Intrigued, they set out to learn more. What they learned deeply impressed them--and me.
Raised a socialite in Beverly Hills, Mary Clarke had served in the ambulance corps during World War II. She married young and divorced soon. Remarried and trapped in a loveless marriage, she nevertheless raised her children, the youngest of whom was a teenager when Clarke felt the call to a religious life. At age fifty, she began her ministry to the prisoners. Living her faith in word and deed, she has brought the message of repentance and God’s forgiveness to thousands of society’s outcasts.
In The Prison Angel, the authors relate stories told to them by prisoners, former prisoners, guards, and the many other people who have worked for or with Clarke. After getting the blessing of the Catholic bishops in California and Mexico, she adopted the name Mother Antonio (nuns are sisters in the United States but “mother” in Mexico) in honor of a priest who had supported her career decision.
One quality of Mother Antonio that impressed me is her transparency. By that, I mean the radiance she emits that is the glory of God made manifest in her. Father Joseph Carroll, who routinely supplied carloads of goods from the charitable warehouse he ran, told the Jordan and Sullivan, “You sense this pure joy from her. And it’s nice to touch that. Because we’re all so skeptical. . . . But even the skeptics begin to believe in God just because she’s so happy with them. And it’s not like she’s preaching. This woman is just joy and happiness, period.” (87)
If the God of second chances can work miracles in the imprisoned, those of us leading lives in freedom should take a second look at ourselves and our faith.