Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
The Penguin Press, 256 pages, $24.95
Mother Antonia, visitor of prisoners

A Beverly Hills mother transformed her life to serve those in jail

Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD

Visiting prisoners, all Christians understand, is one ultimate measure of fidelity to the Gospel. Yet most prefer to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless because visiting a prison seems too daunting.

In this context, as admirably evoked in Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s new book The Prison Angel, Mother Antonia’s story is astonishing. More than visit prisoners, for 28 years the foundress of the Servants of the Eleventh Hour has lived in La Mesa prison -- one of Mexico’s more notorious prisons -- in Tijuana, witnessing to prisoners, guards and wardens. Mother Antonia’s story is all the more remarkable because she began life as Mary Clarke, who, as a twice-divorced mother of seven from Beverly Hills, at the age of 50 transformed her life to begin her ministry.

Ms. Jordan and Mr. Sullivan are married foreign correspondents for The Washington Post. They won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for reporting on Mexico’s criminal justice system. This is their first book. We’re indebted to them for calling our attention to this remarkable woman.

The writers correctly focus on Mother Antonia’s ministry, but how Mary Clarke became Mother Antonia may, in a sense, intrigue readers more. Ms. Clarke’s Catholic parents influenced her greatly, especially her father, who taught her to support workers and not to cross picket lines.

Ms. Clarke acknowledges culpability in her failed marriages. She was too young the first time, and while her second husband, Carl, was more mature and responsible, he was emotionally distant. To cope, Ms. Clarke increasingly became involved in charity work, collecting supplies and medicine for international relief and raising funds for a local hospital. As she became more immersed in this work, Ms. Clarke met persons who compelled her to rethink her life’s possibilities.

A missionary, Fr. Henry Vetter, first invited her to visit La Mesa, and she returned there many times. Although her 1972 divorce saddened her, it freed her to pursue her dream of becoming a missionary, inspired by her friend Msgr. Anthony Brouwers. Two significant factors complicated her decision to become a missionary. An established order wasn’t willing to accept a twice-divorced woman in her late 40s, and her youngest son, Anthony -- named after Msgr. Brouwers -- was still a teenager.

Nonetheless, by 1976, at 50, Ms. Clarke, in an innovative, unorthodox move, made her own habit and called herself Mother Antonia -- again after Msgr. Brouwers -- and committed herself to La Mesa’s people. Anthony, however, experienced difficulty adjusting to his mother’s new life, and Ms. Clarke reluctantly relinquished custody to Carl. She moved into the prison in 1978 and eventually received blessings from the bishops of San Diego and Tijuana to establish her new order.

Some readers may react incredulously when they read that Ms. Clarke’s children unconditionally accept their mother’s new lifestyle. Although religious forsake their former lives, a mom is always your mom, and I wish the authors explored more how Mother Antonia bridged her former and current worlds.

Ms. Jordan and Mr. Sullivan are at their best evoking La Mesa’s bizarre -- even by prison standards -- world. Families live on the compound, conjugal visits are common, rich drug lords host casino nights while petty criminals are often beaten and humiliated. Amid all this, Mother Antonia quells riots, mediates hunger strikes and pleads with guards to treat prisoners more humanely. Maintaining a cheerful disposition, she treats all with equal compassion -- rich, poor, prisoners, guards, wardens -- while always cajoling her devoted benefactors to give more time, money and supplies.

Some readers may find Mother Antonia’s work for change from within the prison problematic. Mother Antonia speaks out in only the most extreme cases, such as when prisoners are badly beaten. Her efforts did eliminate the Grito, a humiliating initiation of new prisoners, but you wonder if her work only humanized an unjust system.

The authors seem too enamored of Mother Antonia to examine her work critically, depriving readers of a richer, more nuanced portrait. Instead, a series of repetitive testimonials from benefactors and persons she ministered to confirm Mother Antonia is the Prison Angel but stall the book’s momentum, offering the impression the flawed woman of earlier chapters no longer makes mistakes or despairs.

Had the writers emphasized her essential humanity more, Mother Antonia would have been better served. As Mother Antonia says of herself, “anyone can make a sandwich.” Nonetheless, in the United States, which has the world’s highest incarceration rate, Mother Antonia’s story may inspire others -- especially older people looking for a fresh start -- to become involved in prison ministry.

Hers is a memorable, uplifting story, but The Prison Angel could have been a better book.

Chris Byrd works for a nonprofit food distribution program in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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