Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

She thanked him, then climbed down from the stage, elated. Hers had always been an unorthodox mission, and it had been tough to persuade the official church to accept a twice-divorced mother as a Catholic sister. But there she was, being blessed by the Pope himself.

As she made her way through the massive crowd a man ran up to her, calling her name.

"Remember me?" he said. "You paid my fine to get me out of jail and brought me to the bus station. Thank you. Thank you."

She gave him the rosary the Pope had just handed to her.

"He ran through a million people to find me," she says. "It was meant to be his."

It is impossible to give Mother Antonia a gift, because she invariably gives it to someone else. Give her flowers, and they end up brightening a cancer ward. Give her candy, and prisoners end up eating it. She can always think of someone who needs it more than she does.

Mother Antonia is a nonstop coffee drinker who requires only a few hours of sleep a night. Every encounter with people seems to energize her even more, and we see that happen over and over.

On one typical day we spend with her, she wakes at five a.m. and tunes in to the news on the radio to "see who else I need to pray for today." She showers with cold water, then irons her veil on a small fold-up ironing board in her cell. Next she goes to the chapel to pray, and then to the Grito, the morning roll call of new prisoners. After that, she spends the next few hours in the prison, talking to inmates.

At ten o'clock, Joanie, who has been assisting Mother Antonia full-time since her husband died in 1997, drives her the two blocks to Casa Campos de San Miguel, the shelter she runs for poor women, where Mother Antonia keeps a small office. Out back are several dormitory-style rooms for women who have just been released from La Mesa, along with those who have come to visit an inmate and women who are suffering from cancer.

Gabriela GarcĂ­a Loeza is waiting for Mother Antonia outside Casa Campos as we arrive, her eyes swollen from crying. She was discharged from prison the night before and has been up all night. She tells Mother Antonia she has no money to go anywhere. Mother Antonia hugs her and tells her she is going to give her a bus ticket to Mexico City, where Gabriela has family. In the meantime, she should stay here. Gabriela calms down and comes into the house, heading to the kitchen, where some of the sisters who have joined Mother Antonia's unusual religious community cook her lunch.

We follow Mother Antonia into her office, and before she can sit down to tackle her stack of phone messages, the wife of a La Mesa guard arrives, frantic: "My husband said you help everybody. Can you help him? He's a good man, but now he is changed. I think he's using drugs. He is very aggressive. He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. Please, please, what are we going do to?"

Mother Antonia listens from behind her desk, where she keeps miniature Mexican, U.S., and Irish flags. She pulls out her dog-eared book of telephone numbers and is soon talking to the state's director of public security. She asks him: If a guard voluntarily acknowledged that he had a drug or alcohol addiction and wanted to take time off to go into rehab, would he promise her that the man wouldn't be fired? Sure, he says.

"You promise me, right?"

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