success stories

Tijuana's Live-In 'Prison Angel'

American Nun Brings Hope to Inmates on Border

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 10, 2002; Page A01

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Mary Clarke was an all-American Beverly Hills beauty, accustomed to luxury and her weekend beach home. She had eight children before a divorce led her to tear up her life and start again.

So as a middle-aged California mother she crossed the border into Tijuana in the late 1970s. She traded her sparkling gowns for the simple black habit of a Catholic nun, her English for Spanish and her airy Los Angeles home for a musty Mexican prison cell. For the last 25 years, Sister Antonia, as she is now known, has been the Prison Angel of Tijuana, a tiny woman in a spotless white veil ministering to the miserable.

Her mission is practical: She provides aspirin, eyeglasses, false teeth and bail to thousands of petty thieves and other impoverished convicts. She washes and prepares for burial the grotesquely tortured bodies left in the gutters by drug gangs. She sings in the prison chapel to lift the spirits of the down-and-out and counsels rapists and drug traffickers as well as the guards who carry automatic weapons.

Inside La Mesa State Penitentiary, one of the roughest prisons in Latin America, she lives in a concrete room about 10 by 10 feet with pink walls. She keeps little more there than her English Bible and Spanish dictionary. Long-timers recall when the 5-foot-2 woman halted a riot, walking into a hail of bullets to demand that the shooting stop. Inmates, stunned that she would risk her own life and let the tear gas burn away at her Windex-blue eyes, put down their guns and jagged broken bottles.

President Vicente Fox recently met and lauded Sister Antonia, who this year is also honored on a calendar praising women who have made great contributions to Mexico. Another president, Ronald Reagan, also wrote to her, in 1982, saying he was amazed at her "devotion to a calling beyond the ordinary."

Hollywood has come knocking, too. The Californian has always turned down the movie producers and generally has shied away from publicity. But now, at 75, and after a quarter-century in the prison, she consented to extensive interviews.

"I always felt for people in prison," she said. Then she laughed lightly, as she seems to all day long, telling a visitor that maybe some of her long-ago relatives spent time behind bars.

"It is different to live among people than it is to visit them," she said. "I have to be here with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has an appendix [attack], in case someone dies."

All four of her grandparents came from Ireland and many people in Tijuana refer to her as the "Irish nun." She is a curiosity to many who do not understand why anyone would willingly live in a place known for stabbings and the smell of sewage, and who sings "Danny Boy" and other tunes while she does.

"There is no other way to describe her. She is a saint," said the prison warden, Carlos Lugo Felix.

Lugo said her work extends to helping poorly paid police and prison guards. Those people get little respect, in part because so often those who carry guns in Mexico abuse their power. But Sister Antonia embraces them, raising money for the children of Tijuana's long list of murdered police officers and hugging the guards as she walks about the prison. She also gives the guards ethics classes.

Lugo said their Prison Angel should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, like Mother Teresa, who came to Tijuana in 1991 and chatted with Sister Antonia about their shared mission of bringing dignity to the poor.

Even with her serious heart problems and her chronic shortness of breath, Sister Antonia rises before dawn and seems to never stop moving. She is increasingly devoting time to organizing the religious order she recently founded. The order is specifically for older single, divorced or widowed women who have decided to devote their lives to the poor. It is called Servants of the Eleventh Hour, a reference to their late start in their vocation. Seven woman have joined.

"I can't die without giving other women, and someday men, the chance to serve as I have," she said.

Sister Carmen Dolores Hendrix, a widow with four children from Orange County, Calif., is part of the new order, which has the blessing of the Tijuana archdiocese. Formerly an electronics assembler for Rockwell, she now cares for the sick in Tijuana.

Joanie Kenesie, another California widow who works alongside Sister Antonia, said she was drawn to her obvious love of what she is doing. Kenesie has accompanied Sister Antonia to Tijuana's red-light district and around town. As they go, prostitutes and former inmates wave and honk.

"They will scream out the window: 'Remember me? Look at my car. I paid for it. Are you proud of me?'. . . . They love her."

As word of her work has spread, growing numbers of lay people -- many of them not Catholic -- have come to Tijuana from the United States to meet her and donate to her charities, such as a hospice for women and children with AIDS. Truckloads of medicines and mattresses and other donated items come nearly weekly from San Diego to the Tijuana prison. Caring for prisoners and others in Tijuana with tuberculosis, AIDS and cancer is also a significant part of her work.

La Mesa is vastly different from prisons in the United States: Wealthier inmates live in relative comfort in little houses with sofas and stereos, while the poorest inmates cannot afford a bed and so sleep on the ground. Inmates are expected to pay for their living expenses -- from clothes to medicine -- and so Sister Antonia has made it her mission to help the poorest behind bars.

"I am hard on crime, but not on persons," she said. "Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity."

At a recent Mass inside the prison celebrating her 25th year of living among the inmates, hundreds of robbers and drug traffickers and murderers interrupted the service to give her a standing ovation. They cheered and whooped at the little elderly woman on a makeshift stage.

On the prison soccer field that day one inmate recalled how Sister Antonia ran to an all-night Tijuana pharmacy to get painkillers for him after stopping a prison medic from sewing up a gash on his hand without anesthetic.

Inmate Jorge Perez Ruiz pulled up one leg of his jeans and exposed a festering sore. "She paid for my medicine so this wouldn't get worse," he said, dabbing at a year-old bullet wound. Martinez Lopez Serrano, a convicted burglar, chimed in, saying he was feeling miserable until Sister Antonia arranged for him to be transported to an outside hospital for treatment for his hepatitis.

The government has given Sister Antonia the concession to sell soft drinks to 5,500 inmates. She has used the money to free more than 2,000 poor first-time offenders by paying their bail or fines. She has also paid to fix the teeth of more than 3,000 inmates. Some lose teeth in prison fights; others lose them because they have never owned a toothbrush or known how to use one.

"Pleasure depends on where you are, who you are with, what you are eating," she said. "Happiness is different. Happiness does not depend on where you are. . . . I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years. I have been upset, angry. I have been sad. But never depressed. I have a reason for my being."

Mary Clarke was 18 when she married, and, according to her daughter, Kathleen Mariani, she was depressed when her marriage of 25 years ended. But, Mariani said, her mother sold their Los Angeles house and did more and more charity work. Several times she went to Tijuana, a place where she increasingly felt she could do the most good. She played records to learn Spanish.

Mariani, who lives in San Diego, said her mother used to faint when one of her own children needed stitches and literally passed out at the sight of blood. "That is the greatest marvel of all," she said, noting the gritty work she now does. "To watch her walk into that prison is incredible."

Sister Antonia resists any discussion of her life before she entered the prison. But she keeps in contact with her seven living children by phone and weekend visits. Her former husband has remarried and the two have almost no contact.

While she often tells those she counsels that "only love can break your heart," the brutality she has witnessed has also strained it. Many of the inmates and police officials she counted among her friends have been murdered. She spoke to the Tijuana police chief the day before assassins pumped 100 bullets into his body two years ago. She knew well the La Mesa prison warden who was dragged from his car and executed in 1995. She comforted and housed the mother of the man convicted in the 1994 killing of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana, one of the most infamous murders in modern Mexican history.

Manuel Martinez Rivas, a prison guard who has known Sister Antonia for 12 years, said she brings calm and warmth to Tijuana and the prison.

"She gives us a good talking to before we become guards. It's part of our training," he said. "She asks us to be better with our families, with our wives, to be faithful husbands, not to drink, and to treat the prisoners well."

Guards and others who know her say she helped get rid of the torture racks and other techniques guards used against prisoners in years past. Even at her celebration Mass last month, she used her few minutes at the microphone to ask for the closure of the so-called punishment cells, where prisoners are often beaten by other inmates.

"Little by little, I would like to think I have been an influence on getting better treatment for the prisoners," she said. "For so many of them, their only crime is poverty."

2002 The Washington Post Company