Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

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Book Review by C.M. Mayo

by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Penguin, 2005
Review originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, 2005

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, husband-and-wife correspondents for The Washington Post, open Prison Angel with a thunderclap. During a combined 40 years as journalists, "we have interviewed presidents and rock stars, survivors of typhoons in India, and people tortured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. We had never heard a story quite like hers, a story of such powerful goodness." The story is that of Mother Antonia, an elderly nun who voluntarily lives in a cramped, smelly cell in Tijuana's notorious La Mesa prison.

It's hardly where one would expect to find the woman born Mary Clark in 1926, a pretty blonde raised in Beverly Hills who married and divorced twice, had seven children, and achieved professional success selling office supplies and real estate. She started volunteering for a variety of charities in the mid-1950s, and in 1965, one of her charities sent her across the border with supplies for La Mesa prisoners. It was as if "she had come home."

She made increasingly frequent trips to La Mesa, feeling that she was "being led." After her second marriage ended in 1972, she decided to become a nun in order to be of greater service: "An American housewife could bring donated clothing and be appreciated by the prisoners in La Mesa, but a Catholic nun would be far more trusted," the authors write. When none of the orders she applied to would accept a middle-aged divorcée, she wrote her own vows, designed and sewed her own habit, and chose the name Antonia in honor of her California mentor, Monsignor Anthony Brouwers. In 1978, with her children grown, Mother Antonia sold her home in San Diego and moved into La Mesa.

For nearly three decades now, this "cheery little woman in a black-and-white habit" has dispensed blankets, peanut butter, advice, prayers, and hugs to murderers, rapists, thieves, transvestites, schizophrenics, psychotics, the sick, and the poor (some of them incarcerated because they can't pay a $10 fine). The prisoners so respect Mother Antonia that she can stop a riot. For its part, the Catholic Church has come around. When the Pope visited Mexico in 1990, Tijuana's bishop chose Mother Antonia to carry the offertory gift to the altar. In 2003, the church permitted her to found the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour (a branch of an order named after 17th-century French missionary St. John Eudes), for middle-aged and older women who want to dedicate their lives to serving the poor.

An episode that perhaps best exemplifies Mother Antonia's outlook concerns an assassin named David Barrón. After he and fellow gang members murdered their latest victim and severely wounded another man, Barrón himself was killed by a ricocheting bullet. "I knew nobody else would be allowed in to see him, and maybe no one else would want to," Mother Antonia tells the authors. So she goes to the morgue, arriving just after the autopsy. Across Barrón's torso are tattoos of 19 skulls--- one for each person he'd killed, the police tell her.

Mother Antonia touches Barrón's hair and considers what drew him to the gang: "He finally found a place where he could say, ‘I belong. I don't belong in school. I don't belong with friends. I don't belong in church. I don't belong in my family. But I belong here. These are my guys…. I will die to be with them. I'll kill to be with them.'" Mother Antonia doesn't excuse Barrón's crimes, but she prays to God to have mercy on him.

Deeply researched and elegantly written, Prison Angel offers important insights into the Mexican justice system and the problems afflicting the U.S.-Mexico border. But above all, it takes its place among the best spiritual biographies of recent years. It is, indeed, a story of powerful goodness.