Mother Antonia’s life as a ‘Prison Angel’: Serving God behind bars for over 31 years
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Catholic Universe Bulletin) - For Mother Antonia, a petite but powerful 81-year-old woman who has lived much of the last 31 years in a Mexican prison ministering to inmates, life is about respect and the dignity of each person.
PRISON ANGEL - Mother Antonia, called the Prison Angel by two authors, visited St. Joseph Academy during her recent trip to Cleveland and enjoyed a lighter moment after meeting with students. With her is the school’s president, Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis. (Courtesy)
In addition to rapists and drug dealers, many of the inmates she serves at La Mesa Prison in Tijuana, Mexico, are paying the price for a nonviolent crime. Many are first-time offenders, unable to make bail because of their dire poverty.
“The crime itself is not a person’s name,” she explained. “They are human beings first. I do not judge them for their actions. I am against crime, but in a way that’s firm.”
Mother Antonia believes every person deserves respect, even those who have been hurtful.
“People are beginning to realize that people in prisons are human beings,” said Mother Antonia, the subject of the best-selling biography “The Prison Angel” by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. “Even Moses and David committed murder, but God forgives. He still loved them, and His love is greater than any sin.”
Everyday gossip is also like a homicide because it hurts other people, she added. “Words can be destructive. They can either build or destroy.”
At the age of 50, Mary Brenner Clarke, a housewife in California living a comfortable middle class life, left her suburban world and began to serve the poor inmates at La Mesa.
On a trip across the Mexican border, the divorced mother of eight children visited the prison and felt she had a calling to serve the inmates, who lived in cold, dank cells.
“I was happy being a mother and grandmother, but I felt God was calling me to serve Him in prison,” she said. “I felt like I had come home.”
Living in a small prison cell herself, Clarke became Mother Antonia and learned how difficult life can be in a place where disrespect was rampant and violence a regular part of life. Donning a handmade habit, she ventured into a new world far from the fast lifestyle that characterizes southern California.
Mother and foundress
With the church’s approval, Mother Antonia eventually founded the Eudist Sisters of the Eleventh Hour, an association of consecrated faithful older religious women based in Tijuana, to follow her ministry in Mexican prisons.
Mother Antonia said her many experiences living among the 9,000 male and female inmates in the overcrowded prison for 31 years has helped her understand the true meaning of forgiveness. For the last 29 years on Ash Wednesday, the prisoners gather in the prison chapel, appropriately named for St. Paul in Chains, to pray and ask for forgiveness from anyone whom they had offended. The inmates’ notes are burned, symbolizing forgiveness, and the ashes are used to place a cross on each inmate’s forehead.
Mother Antonia recalled how one prisoner told her after he had performed the ritual, “I am free today because I forgave a man whose resentment I had carried for many years.”
The elderly nun is grateful to the Mexican government for allowing her to live among the prisoners. She said her ministry has improved prison conditions.
“This is a beautiful and rewarding experience,” she said. “Just being able to serve, teaching catechism and preparing inmates for the sacraments, comforting those with HIV and TB, bringing an extra blanket to those who are cold, reading to them, contacting their families. I believe my very presence brings peace and God’s love to them. It’s just following Jesus’ call, ‘When I was in prison, you came.’”
Friend to the poor
Mother Antonia is also an advocate for the poor, who have little voice in the Mexican judicial system. Many people are accused of petty crimes, some as minor as stealing food to feed their families. They are serving time because they lack the money for bail.
Throughout her visit, Mother Antonia urged people to find meaning in their lives as a way to show gratefulness to God. “Find a neighbor or a friend to do something for them,” she said. “It’s the only way to find true happiness.”
While in Cleveland, Mother Antonia visited with female inmates at the North East Ohio Pre-Release Center and St. Joseph Academy.
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Universe Bulletin (www.catholicuniversebulletin.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.
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