The ‘Prison Angel’: an exemplar of love and works

Mother Antonia Brenner

Mother Antonia Brenner was a twice-divorced socialite who renounced Hollywood glitz to live as a nun in a Mexican prison. This obituary appeared in The Telegraph, London.

Mother Antonia Brenner

December 1, 1926 – October 17, 2013

Mother Antonia Brenner, who has died aged 86, was a twice-divorced former Hollywood socialite and mother of seven who, in 1977, gave away most of her possessions, put on a homemade nun’s habit and went to live in a Mexican prison. At first, the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; indeed for many years, as a divorcée she had been unable to take Holy Communion. Nothing daunted, she left her home in Ventura, California, packed in her job, made her vows in private and moved into a bunk in the women’s wing of La Mesa Tijuana, a prison housing 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners, later moving to her own 10-by-10-ft concrete cell.

La Mesa was a notorious hellhole where rich drug lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even lavatory paper unless their relatives brought supplies. Brutalised prison guards contributed to the misery, mistreating the mentally ill and administering cruel interrogations.

Over the next 30 years ‘Madre Antonia’, as she came to be known, transformed the atmosphere. Armed with a Bible, a Spanish dictionary and her own unassailable moral authority, she waded into riots and gun battles; shamed prison authorities into improving conditions and brought human rights violations to the attention of newspapers.

She persuaded doctors and dentists to hold free clinics, got local bakers to donate bread to supplement the meagre prison rations, rescued lavatories from junk yards and insisted on their being installed, prayed with prisoners and guards and got to know their families. She taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong, and many would later testify that her example had persuaded them to mend their ways.

She also took on the Mexican legal system, raising money to pay fines to keep petty offenders out of prison and accompanying inmates to court in order to force judges to justify the wildly different sentences they handed out to rich and poor. One Tijuana judge acknowledged that she had convinced him that class should not be a factor in the administration of justice.

After a year, her service came to the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities, and 18 months into her ministry the Bishop of Tijuana, Juan Jesus Posadas, made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which works among prisoners. Subsequently her work came to the attention of Pope John Paul II who gave her his blessing. In 1991, Mother Teresa visited Tijuana to see her work.

In 1997, Antonia began the process of forming the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, a religious community of women who serve the poor and downtrodden. She bought a house near the prison to serve as a refuge for women leaving the prison, for women and children visiting family members, and women and children in Tijuana for cancer treatment. In 2003 the community, many of them older women who had been turned away by other religious communities because of their age, was formally accepted by the Bishop of Tijuana.

The second of three children, she was born Mary Clarke on December 1 1926 in Los Angeles, to Irish immigrant parents. Her mother died when she was pregnant with her fourth child, leaving her 24-year-old husband to raise his children on his own.

During the Depression he struggled to keep food on the table, but in Mary’s teenage years he became a successful businessman, supplying carbon paper and other office items, and moved his family to a luxurious new home in Beverly Hills, where neighbours included Hedy Lamarr, John Barrymore and Dinah Shore. Weekends were spent at a beach house overlooking the Pacific and, as she moved into the Hollywood social scene, Mary Clarke’s wardrobe filled with mink coats and ball gowns.

Yet her father never allowed his children to forget their duty to the less fortunate and with her father’s encouragement she became involved in projects to send medical supplies to people in need in Africa, India, Korea, the Philippines and South America.

A vivacious and attractive blonde, Mary had no shortage of male admirers, and at the age of 19 she married a former serviceman. They had three children (one of whom predeceased her), but her husband’s addiction to gambling left the family in debt. Five years later she divorced him and went to work to support her children. In 1950 she married Carl Brenner, with whom she had five more children. When her father died in 1956, she took over his business. All the time she continued to do charity work…

Full obituary in The Telegraph, London: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10399707/Mother-Antonia-Brenner.html

Obituary in the National Catholic Reporter: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/mother-antonia-brenner-prison-angel-dies

Obituary in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/mother-antonia-brenner-socialite-turned-nun-who-ended-a-prison-riot-8905000.html

Obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/us/antonia-brenner-prison-angel-who-took-inmates-under-her-wings-dies-at-86.html?_r=0

Wikipedia on Mother Antonia Brennan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Antonia

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