Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

Her mission has expanded over the years to include as many of Tijuana's poor and sick as she can reach. She even visits the dead. At the city morgue, bodies not claimed after nine days are buried in an unmarked common grave at the municipal cemetery. Mother Antonia often holds funerals for these people, who are sometimes known by only a number. Once a month, she holds a mass for all the unknown dead in Tijuana. The city supplies simple pine coffins, and she buys plots in the cemetery and small grave markers. On and off over the years, when there was no other transportation available, she would sometimes stand on the busy street outside the morgue and flag down a passing van or pickup truck to get a coffin to the cemetery.

"Excuse me, could you please help me for a minute?" she would ask, and soon a truck driver who happened to be passing by would be on his way to the cemetery with a nun and a coffin.

"She'll ask anyone to do anything," says Joanie Kenesie, her longtime friend and assistant. "And they always help her."

At the cemetery, she buys a cross to mark the grave and writes "We love you" on it in Spanish. Then she calls over the grave diggers, vendors selling the crosses, anybody she can find to join in a prayer for a stranger as the coffin is lowered into the ground.

She helps people nobody else goes near. "Without her, we would have nothing," a seventy-year-old woman named Eloísa tells us. She lost both legs below the knee to leprosy. When Mother Antonia met Eloísa, her husband, Roberto, also a leper, was carrying her around the prison yard on his back. She had no other way to get around. Roberto had been arrested for selling drugs, because, he says, nobody would give a leper a job. Lost without him, Eloísa went out and sold drugs on the street as openly as possible, so she would be arrested and sent to La Mesa to be with him. While they were in prison, Mother Antonia brought them food and kept them company when nobody else would have anything to do with them. She paid to fix Eloísa's teeth, because, she tells us, "If you don't have legs, you should at least have a beautiful smile."

When they were released in 2003, Mother Antonia worked the phones until she found someone who was willing to rent to them. She asked a former inmate, whose freedom she had won by paying his bail, to paint the apartment for them, and she bought Eloísa a wheelchair. As Mother Antonia's work became better known over the years, Mother Teresa visited with her on several trips to Tijuana and California. President Ronald Reagan wrote her a letter from the White House in 1982 praising her "devotion to a calling beyond the ordinary." Mexican President Vicente Fox has lauded her, and she was featured on a calendar honoring women who have made great contributions to Mexico.

She met Pope John Paul II in 1990 when he came to Chihuahua City to say Mass for hundreds of thousands of people. Bishop Emilio Berlie, then the bishop of Tijuana, chose Mother Antonia to carry the offertory gifts to the Pope. Over the microphone, the announcer called out Mother Antonia's name and said she was devoting her life to prisoners. She climbed the stairs to the platform where the Pope sat, and she knelt before him.

"Please pray for my prisoners," she asked.

He touched her cheek and handed her a rosary he had blessed.

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