If you read my book, I hope you’ll come to understand that every woman is called to spiritual motherhood, and many of us are called to physical motherhood.
Sister Antonio Brenner was both.
Her recent death is mourned by many inmates who lived with her in a Tijuana prison, and many outside the prison who knew her.
From the LA Times, in 2002: There’s one thing Sister Antonia did not leave behind when she swapped her upscale Southern California life for a nun’s habit and a tiny cell in one of Mexico’s most notorious prisons.
In between visits of succor and support to a seemingly endless number of prisoners and guards, the 76-year-old, who stands 5 feet 2, erupts in peals of laughter from dawn till dark.
With a mischievous chuckle, she confirms that prisoners have tossed their guns away when she has marched into the middle of their deadly riots. They don’t want the woman they call “Mama” to see them fighting.
Another chuckle accompanies her explanation of the way she trained for life in a cell surrounded by 4,500 murderers, thieves and drug dealers: “I’m the mother of seven children,” she said. “I’m prepared for everything.”
A quarter-century ago, after her children were grown and divorce had filled her heart with sadness, Mary Clarke Brenner gave away her evening clothes, shut the door on her beach house in Ventura and moved to a cell in Tijuana’s La Mesa State Penitentiary. Until it was cleaned up last summer, it was one of Latin America’s most lawless, violent prisons.
I love that this feisty woman mentions that her mothering skills prepared her to this new role. This is more than the story of one woman’s search for a new purpose and meaning in midlife. This has all the earmarks of heroic virtue, as in saint-in-the-making radical love! This is a gutsy women who took Jesus at his word to tend to the poor among us.
From Sister Antonio’s obituary from October 17 in the LA Times, she is quoted as saying in 1982: “Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars.… When I left, I thought a lot about the men. When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter… I wondered if they had medicine and how their families were doing. …You know, when I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I’d come home.”
The obit continues…
Small of stature, with blue eyes peeking out from under her traditional black–and-white habit, Brenner cut a strikingly serene presence in the overcrowded prison of 8,000. She lived as any other inmate, sleeping in a 10-by-10-foot cell, eating the same food and lining up for morning roll call.
She would walk freely among thieves and drug traffickers and murderers, smiling, touching cheeks and offering prayers. Many were violent men with desperate needs. She kept extra toilet paper in her cell, arranged for medical treatment, attended funerals.
Guards and inmates alike started referring to her as the prison angel. In the cellblocks she was known simply as “Mama.”
In a somewhat untraditional way, Sister Antonio’s religious vocation was accepted by the local bishop in Mexico, according to her official bio.
…with permission to take private vows, she put on a religious habit. After a year, her service to prisoners came to the attention of Bishop Juan Jesus Posadas of Tijuana and Bishop Leo Maher of neighboring San Diego. She was officially welcomed and blessed by both Bishops: Bishop Maher made her an auxiliary to him while Bishop Posadas made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which has a special devotion to prisoners. At age fifty, she had become a sister.
News of Sister Antonio’s work and life in La Mesa penitentiary spread to others, and she is credited as the foundress for the Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, a unique order of mature women who are between the ages of 45 and 65. Each Sister must be self-supporting economically and provide their own health care. Vows are taken for a one year period and then renewed annually, if mutually agreeable.
In 1997, Sister Antonia’s mission expanded. Many had heard of her ministry and offered to help and some even wanted to follow in her footsteps. With encouragement from the Bishops and many other supporters, Sister Antonia initiated the process of forming a religious community. It was to be known as the Eudist Servants Of The Eleventh Hour. In 2003 the community was formally accepted by the Bishop of Tijuana. (See more details about the community, whose name comes from St John Eudes.)
Interested readers will want to look into the Pulitzer Prize winning book on her life: The Prison Angel, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.