La Mama

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©Heidi Bratton Photography

One of life’s curious ironies is that a person can “have it all” but in reality have nothing.  Likewise, a person can seem to have nothing and yet have everything–everything that matters that is.

Mother Antonia or Madre Antonia as she is known in Mexico is just such a contradiction; filled to overflowing with love and joy while on the surface seemingly to have nothing.  Madre Antonia is an American-born Roman Catholic nun that is often referred to jokingly as the nun serving a life sentence in a Mexican maximum-security prison.  She is “serving” to be sure, but the sentence is self imposed and it is God and his children whom she serves.

From the Suburbs to Prison

Born, Mary Clarke in 1926, her story is not one of blooming where she was planted. No, she has transplanted herself into a totally different garden and has born great fruit.  As Mary Clarke, she lived the life of a socialite in Beverly Hills, surrounded by glamour, and was just as beautiful as any starlet of her day. She became a suburban mother to seven children but her two marriages both ended in divorce.

It was a nightmare in 1969 that planted the seed eventually leading to her vocation. Mary awakened one night, shaken and touched by what she had just dreamed.  She saw herself as a prisoner at Calvary, about to be executed when Jesus came to her and offered to take her place.  Mary refused his offer but touched him on the cheek and told him, “I will never leave you, no matter what happens.”

The desire for total commitment to Christ as a Catholic nun grew within her during the Seventies, but she could find no order willing to accept an older, divorced woman. Rather than give up on the idea, at fifty years of age, she founded an order for older, previously married women called Servants of the Eleventh Hour. Other older women in similar situations and sharing the same desire soon followed and joined.  It has received the blessing of the Catholic Bishops of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. “We are not young but come to give all our talents to serve God,” explains Madre Antonia. “We want to give back and share our love and experiences.”

In 1977, Madre Antonia devoted herself to charity while still in California. ?Then, while working on a mission across the border from San Diego, CA in the city of  Tijuana, she visited one of the most notorious maximum-security prisons, La Mesa. She describes it as a coming home experience and moved into a cell, sleeping in a bunk with other with female prisoners.  More than thirty years later, she is there still, although the prison now houses only males.

The Power of Love

Even though the prison is home to some of Mexico’s most notorious criminals, she feels safe at home at La Mesa, and is lovingly referred to as La Mama.  She is so loved and respected by both guards and prisoners that no one would dare lay a hand on her. Her effect on the prison is legendary and in November 2007, even a street outside the walls has been renamed “Madre Antonia” in her honor.

Madre Antonia ministers through prayer and spiritual counseling.   Her reach extends to the families of prisoners who she helps support through charity collected by mission supporters in California and beyond.  According to Mother Antonia, she serves all; the guards, the prisoners and even the police officers.  And all are effusive in their praise for this remarkable woman.

“She gives hope and brings a positive element inside,” says one guard. “Mother never takes sides.  She considers them all her sons.”

One prisoner remarks, “We can be in a fight and she passes by and everyone stops.”  Another explains, “She gives us the love we are missing.”

Mother Antonia has even stopped prison riots. During one particularly violent riot, she explains, “I walked in the middle and it stopped.  I prayed to St. Michael to come with a battalion of angels.”

As for her effect on the prisoners, she goes one on one with them.  Mother Antonia will drop to her knees and beg them to promise never to kill again. She tells them, “There’s nothing you have done in this world that puts you beyond the love of God.”

Her Far Reach

Over the years, Madre Antonia has worked to improve prison conditions and manages to establish a close relationship with the prison wardens. She has paid off fines for prisoners so they could be released, and brought them food, clothing, bandages, blankets, medicine, and bus tickets to get home with when they are released. Doctors and nurses have come to volunteer with Madre Antonia to provide services for the prisoners. For the police, she has started an endowment fund for families of officers killed in the line of duty.

Perhaps what Madre Antonia has done best is simply to love and show everyone that the Gospel message preached by Jesus Christ is still alive.  In a world hurt by sin and lack of love, Madre Antonia shows us that love is stronger.   She says she will never leave ‘sus hijos’, the prisoners she considers her sons and daughters.

Mother Antonia explains her mission simply.  “I know this is the world we live in, but I can make it better.”

The story of Madre Antonia is documented in La Mama: An American Nun’s Life in a Mexican Prison, a 28-minute documentary that took 5 years to make. It was written and produced by Emmy award-winning producer Jody Hammond, and released on DVD in 2010.   She was granted rare access inside prison walls to trace Mother Antonia’s journey from privilege to penitentiary.    Actress Susan Sarandon narrates the film.

See http://LaMamaTheMovie.com/ for more information.

(© 2011 Patti Maguire Armstrong)

Patti Maguire Armstrong, is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.