Her decision defies logic and flies in the face of cultural expectations.
She left a life of privilege in Beverly Hills to live in a 10-foot concrete cell with no hot water at La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Her closest neighbors are murderers, thieves and drug lords, but she calls them “sons.”
She works tirelessly to get her “sons” things like bail money, medicine, eyeglasses and false teeth. She counsels them when they are suicidal and tends their physical wounds when they are injured in brawls. When an inmate dies, it is she who washes the body for burial. She is also a friend to prison guards and administrators and is beloved by the local police.
Once during a prison riot, angry inmates began throwing broken bottles at police, who responded by firing machine guns. She walked into the middle of the fray of flying bullets and bottles, extended her hands as a gesture of peace and ordered everyone to stop. They did.
Sister Antonia, formerly Mary Clarke, has lived at La Mesa for over 25 years, helping people most everyone else ignores. Deeply touched by human suffering, she says: “If others are humiliated, you’re humiliated too. There comes a time when you can’t just be a spectator. You have to step outside the lines.”
She readily acknowledges that inmates and their families are not at the top of anyone’s favorite charitable cause list. Yet she has developed a broad network of supporters who donate all kinds of supplies, including mattresses, medicines and money. “No one can say no to her,” her chief assistant says.
“She has changed thousands of people’s lives,” a rehabilitated inmate testifies.
Her journey to prison began innocently enough. In the mid-1960s, she started accompanying a Catholic priest across the Mexican border to deliver supplies and medicine to poor people. On one trip, she and the priest got lost and ended up at La Mesa.
“In the infirmary,” she recalls, “men were desperately sick, yet would stand when you entered.” Before long, she began spending nights there, learned Spanish and assisted the inmates and their families in any way she could.
In 1977 she became Sister Antonia, making private vows with the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego, and moving permanently to La Mesa. This, she believes, is God’s true purpose for her. Her seven children, grown and on their own, continue to be close to their mother and are supportive of her work.
Because she believes she is being obedient to God’s authority, she seems not to notice the serious personal costs and often dangerous circumstances in which she finds herself. Wholehearted love, trust and obedience tend to blind people that way.
Or perhaps they create more perfect vision.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.