Mother Antonia: The Prison Angel

The goal of A Course in Miracles is to produce miracle workers, people who devote their lives to extending love and forgiveness to others in thought, word, and deed. This extension heals others and thereby makes our own healing complete. What does a life of miracle working look like? One way to answer this question is to look to real life examples of miracle workers in our midst. One amazing example is Mother Antonia, the “Prison Angel of Tijuana,” who left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills to spend the last thirty years serving her “beloved hijos” (sons) in a squalid Mexican prison.

Mother Antonia began her life as Mary Clarke, daughter of a prosperous businessman. Though she was raised a child of privilege in Beverly Hills, she was drawn to help others from an early age. She participated in projects such as sending medical supplies to suffering people around the world, and aiding the United Farm Workers movement. She grew up and settled into a conventional life, marrying twice and raising seven children, yet continued her charity work as she ran her deceased father’s business.

In 1965, a priest heard about Mary’s charity work and brought her to a prison in Tijuana, Mexico called La Mesa, a notorious hellhole of filth, drugs, corruption, torture, and death that was known as the “Black Legend.” Though she was appalled by the conditions there, she also felt a stirring in her soul as she met the inmates. She says, “I immediately felt this caring and a love for them. I felt their goodness.” Over the next decade, she would travel to La Mesa several times a week to offer any help she could to the prisoners. In 1977, when her children had left the nest and she had divorced after twenty-five years of marriage, she felt a deeper calling within her: a calling to give up her life “completely.” She did just that. At age fifty, she sold everything she owned, sewed a black dress that she thought looked “nunny,” named herself Mother Antonia (a name inspired by a former spiritual mentor), and moved into La Mesa for good.

Mother Antonia originally lived in a “cell” located over a raw sewer drain; it smelled so bad that she had to wear a surgical mask to stave off the stench. Even today, at eighty years old, she lives in a 10′ x 10′ cell within the prison walls, with nothing more than a cot, a Bible, and a Spanish dictionary. In her years at La Mesa, she has worked tirelessly, for up to eighteen hours a day, to provide whatever those at the prison need. She provides food, medicine, and spiritual counseling. She pays to get nonviolent prisoners released, and helps them find jobs and apartments. She prays for murderers and visits the families of the victims to help them forgive. She has stepped into the middle of gunfire during riots and negotiated truces between the prisoners and riot police. She makes sure that prisoners who die but are unclaimed by any family members get a proper burial, providing a wooden cross that says, “We Love You.” And she doesn’t limit her ministry to the prisoners and their families; she also helps the prison guards, who like the prisoners are often suffering from poverty, depression, and drug addiction.

Over the years, Mother Antonia’s mission has grown as others heard of her work and felt called to serve as she has. In 2003, she founded a new religious community, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, whose members are women like her: “mature women who love Jesus and want to follow Him by serving the poor and the needy.” As more and more people have heard of her work through various articles and a book (The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan), she is touching more hearts than ever. Her thirty years of devoted service to the most outcast of outcasts have led many to regard her as a living saint.

All of this may sound grim and difficult, and Mother Antonia does speak of her work as a kind of self-sacrifice. I’m exhausted just reading about her. Yet paradoxically, this life that looks like such a sacrifice is in fact a life of radiant joy; Mother Antonia’s exuberance inspires everyone she encounters. Maura O’Connor, the author of the article linked to in this piece, says that “she is perhaps the most effusive and enthusiastic person you could ever meet.” O’Connor adds that whenever she spoke with Mother Antonia while researching the article, “I found myself strangely lifted, as if I had been in touch with the Divine….I was in awe of her seemingly bottomless joy.”

Just as Mother Antonia’s “sacrifice” has paradoxically led to bottomless joy, so her thirty years serving in a prison have paradoxically led to freedom. She says, “Somehow prison was the place where I finally experienced the freedom to be myself, to really be myself. I think prison freed me.” It freed her to become a person that a friend of hers summed up this way:

The first time you meet her, you think she’s not real. She’s nuts, she’s not normal. But in twenty years I’ve never seen her change….There’s an exuberance about her relationship with God….It is normal. It’s what we’re supposed to be and we all wish we could be.

Miracle working takes many forms. Most of us will probably not be called to give up everything and go live in a Mexican prison. Yet if A Course in Miracles is right, this is the kind of life we are all meant to lead. This is what a life of miracle working looks like. This is what we’re supposed to be and all wish we could be. This is normal. How would our lives be transformed if we followed Mother Antonia’s example and answered the deepest calling of our hearts, the calling to become miracle workers?

Addendum 2014: In 2012, my partner Patricia and I had the great honor of visiting Mother Antonia and her sisters in Tijuana. We found her to be every bit as wonderful in person as she is portrayed in the book. Sadly, she died on October 17, 2013. Madre Antonia, Thank you for inspiring us to work miracles, and rest in peace. 

Source of material commented on: The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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