Can a Catholic woman get married and divorced twice, give birth to eight children with two different men, become a nun and eventually found a new religious order? The answer is Yes! In fact, this same woman would, on Mother’s Day, 1990, walk the steps alone to present the gifts to Pope John Paul II for the Mass he was offering during his visit to Mexico and, in return, receive his blessing. After all, with God, all things are possible.
This woman was Mother Antonia Brenner, who came to be known as the “Prison Angel” of La Mesa Prison. Mother Antonia died three years ago on October 17, 2013. I believe history will show that this woman was one of the greatest among Catholic women of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Mary Clarke was born in Beverly Hills on December 1, 1926. Her dad, Joe Clarke, was a successful businessman and Mary and her two siblings grew up surrounded with affluence and the glitz of the movie world. Their neighbors included Hollywood luminaries such as William Powell, Hedy Lamarr and John Barrymore.
Joe Clarke had a deep love for all people. No matter how good life was for his family he made sure his kids were always taught to help the less fortunate. That desire to help others would blossom in Mary and was destined to explode. However, before the “explosion,” Mary embarked on a circuitous life journey.
Mary married at 18 and had three children, the first dying shortly after birth. That marriage ended in divorce. As a divorcee, Mary now felt distanced from her Catholic upbringing. She married again, this time in a civil service in Las Vegas, to a man named Carl Brenner. She and Carl had five children together but ultimately, that marriage also ended in divorce. No matter, God “writes straight with crooked lines” and apparently the Holy Spirit had his eye on Mary Clarke Brenner her entire life. He was about to shower his grace all over his daughter.
Mary became more and more involved in charity work. In 1965 she met Father Henry Vetter. He took her along on a delivery of food, medicine and clothing to the prisoners at La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana. The plight of the prisoners at La Mesa (considered among the worst prisons in Mexico) impacted her greatly and as time went by her growing compassion and love of neighbor would become focused on these people. They would become her specialty, her ministry, her purpose in life.
Mary Brenner spent the next 10 years traveling back and forth to La Mesa Prison bringing needed supplies but mostly her love and mercy. Her presence became well known and the prisoners, both men and women, began looking forward to her visits. They began calling her “La Mama.” The warden even gave her accommodations so she could sleep over.