Mother Antonia and the kingdom

March 13, 2008

So I read The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail. The authors, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, are a married couple who work together as journalists. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their coverage of Mexico's criminal justice system. While doing some of that reporting, they happened to interview a young inmate who was a transfer from La Mesa prison in Tijuana. “The only good thing about that place,” she said, “was that Irish nun. I miss talking to her.” That odd comment prompted Jordan and Sullivan to seek out the story of Mother Antonia, nee Mary Clarke.

In 1977, at the age of fifty, Mother Antonia was “born,” out of Mary Clarke's decision (made on Easter Sunday 1976) to dedicate her entire life to a ministry of mercy to a particularly grim place she had first visited in 1965 with a priest from Pasadena who did missionary work in Mexico. The ministry began with supply runs (infirmary equipment, mattresses, hamburgers, whatever she could find), holding hands with prisoners, changing bandages, and other nonverbal gestures of kindness (she couldn't speak Spanish at that point). In 1969 she had a dream in which she was a prisoner whose place on death row was taken by Jesus Christ. Gradually she came to realize that the need in La Mesa was so great that only if she was there twenty-four seven could she really help. She had to become, as she put it, an insider to suffering.

The full-time ministry, which started in March 1978, was multidimensional and eclectic. She obtained food, blankets, medicine, toilets, beds, shelves, toilet paper, and shoes for the prisoners (and sometimes for the guards). She intervened in violent confrontations between prisoners. She intervened in the violent abuses carried out by guards against prisoners. She buried the unclaimed dead. She comforted prisoners grieving for loved ones. She collected money to pay small fines to keep poor men and women from being incarcerated in the first place. She paid fees for dental work for prisoners. She recruited dentists to come, set up shop in La Mesa and donate their labor. She converted drug lords to the straight life. All the while smiling at people and hugging them and telling them she loved them and telling them that God loved them.

I used to hate people like this. For part of my life, I was indifferent to them. I was a child of my time: most of them were phonies, and maybe a few freaks were indeed saintly. Then for a while I wanted to be one of them. When I found out I couldn't be like them, that was when I hated them. That has started to turn around. Alice Walker's novel Meridian had something to do with it. More recently, Tracy Kidder's remarkable Mountains Beyond Mountains, an account of the work of Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, did a lot of heavy lifting. Kidder includes himself in the account and so gave me a surrogate through which I could safely explore the complicated feelings aroused by another person's selflessness and sacrifice.

Probably the most powerful influence is that of Jesus. Jesus pulled off this wild stunt where he affirmed the extraordinary potential of human beings while simultaneously slamming us all into humility. I don't know how other people do it, but for myself, and maybe for Mother Antonia, the bedrock awareness that Christ is our champion keeps my sense of humor and sense of wonder alive, and lets heroes be heroes without having to tear them down or beat myself up for not being one. I realize that God takes creative pleasure in this kind of thing; the art is dark and sometimes horrific but also somehow shot through with light and it all comes together in amazing ways at the end.

Jordan and Sullivan's accomplishment is not on the same level as Kidder's, but they do something necessary artfully, which is to tell the whole story so that we understand that Mother Antonia did not spring from God's womb full-grown and can appreciate the uniqueness of her journey. We need to know: just who is this Mary Clarke person?

Before I share with you some of what I find terribly interesting about her early life, one specific anecdote that will have to stand for a whole book's worth of stories about her.

In Chapter Seven we hear about a ritual at La Mesa called the Grito. Seventy guards would line up along either side of a hallway, each new prisoner would walk the gauntlet, yelling three times their name, their alias, and the charge against them – three days in a row (so all three shifts of guards could get a look at them in this state, and – frequently – take a swing at them too).

Mother Antonia asked the comandante (head of the guards) for permission to attend the Grito for four years before he agreed; this was accomplished by coming to him on her “anniversary” of coming to La Mesa and holding the cake the guards had given her. He thought he was giving her permission to go just that day; she finessed this (with her hustler's gift for ballsiness) into unlimited access. She would go every day, after early morning prayers in the chapel. She would walk the gauntlet herself, and encourage the inmates, and by her presence prevent a lot of abuse.

Ten years later, an Army major took over as warden and, at her behest, ended two of the most humiliating Grito practices (forcing the prisoners to yell out their crimes, and walking the gauntlet). Eventually the ritual was phased out entirely. This was a small but significant shift in the entire culture of the prison.

This kingdom-builder was born in Los Angeles on December 1st, 1926, a second-generation immigrant: Irish Catholic. Her mother died early in her fourth pregnancy, after refusing surgery that could have saved her life; the surgery would have terminated the pregnancy. Her father, Joseph Clarke, had to borrow money to pay for his wife's funeral, having lost his job to the Great Depression. Thirteen years later he was doing well for himself; he was a salesman for a company producing information technology (carbon paper and typewriter ribbons) and it started getting a lot of business from defense contractors. The Clarkes bought a house on Beverly Hills, and later, a summer home on Laguna Beach.

Joseph Clarke had been raised by a single mother in poverty. He was marked by having lived among the downtrodden and by his eighth-grade Catholic education. His behavior was peppered with little frugalities and acts of generosity. He walked up a steep Los Angeles hill to save the streetcar fare for donation to his favorite charity, the Maryknoll Missionaries.

As many of his good friends were Jews, Joseph Clarke's dinner table was often filled with conversation about Germany, Europe in general, and after the war started, World War II. Conversations about the concentration camps, musing on the indifference and ignorance that surely made them possible, left a deep impression on Mary. She grew “increasingly preoccupied by the suffering of people far from her comfortable world.” She found a cave at Laguna Beach, and retreated there sometimes to read (and reread) Steinbeck on migrant workers (In Dubious Battle) and Valtin on working-class Germans (Out of the Night).

She married a returning soldier, a buddy of her older brother, at nineteen. Her first pregnancy ended in a 57-hour labor and a baby who died after three days. She had named him Joseph. After recovering somewhat (the injuries she sustained in that birth would pain her the rest of her life), Mary started going to church every day. Her newborn was now a saint in heaven, a priest told her. Mary could pray to him (as she did thenceforth) and strive to join him at the end of her life.

By 1950 she had two healthy children by her first husband, and a second husband, who gave her more children but shared little of himself with her. While she took the children to church (where she could not receive Communion, due to her divorce), her second husband would play golf with his friends. Later she would comment, “I'm not one to be sensible. My heart has always been my guide. I think you could say my heart drove me to do the best things in my life, and also to make my most serious mistakes.”

By 1961 there were five kids, in addition to her first two. She named her youngest after Monsignor Anthony Brouwers, a priest in L.A. with whom she had formed a very close bond, intellectual and spiritual. He organized a lot of missionary work and shared an understanding with Mary that God calls us (sometimes particular people in particular ways) to minister to the downtrodden with mercy. When Mary Clarke decided to wear a habit (one she sewed herself) and pretend to be a nun to pursue more deeply her ministry in Tijuana, she dubbed herself Mother Antonia in honor of his memory. By that time her father had died, leaving her the family business which she sold (after running it, quite well, for a few years), and she had divorced her second husband.

So an intersection of forces we can't fully understand, including heredity, history, environment, religious upbringing, intellectual influences, various hardships and explicitly theological mentoring brought Mary Clarke to the point where she could give her life away to an extraordinary degree, without – and this is so important – a sense of trauma, not even to her youngest son (for whom his mother's move to Tijuana was a dramatic change).

Mother Antonia does what she does informed by a certain kind of inextinguishable joy that is, all our experience to the contrary, normal. Or it ought to be normal, or could be normal. She feels normal. She told Jordan and Sullivan at one point: “People say what I'm doing is such a great sacrifice, but it is not… I don't think of it as a sacrifice. It's only a sacrifice when you do something you don't want to.” At another time, as she was making sandwiches to bring to prisoners: “You know, people think what I do is so extraordinary. But look at me; what am I doing? Anyone can do it. There are so many things people can do. It doesn't have to be enormous. It's the little things. Anyone can make a sandwich.”

If you're curious, there's an excerpt from the book here.

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