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.
Mary took the name of Antonia (after her mentor, Monsignor Anthony Bowers) and became Mother Antonia Brenner. She sewed together a nun’s habit, put it on, and went to see Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego. She got down on her knees and told him her story. He knew all about her and gave her his blessing, validating her ministry. She would even start a new order, Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, an order for women 45 and older who wanted to serve the less fortunate. In addition to the blessing from Bishop Maher she also received the blessing of Bishop Juan Jesus Posadas of Tijuana. She had Church authorization for her ministry from bishops in two separate countries.
After her kids were grown, Mary gave away her belongings, moved out of her home in Ventura and headed to La Mesa Prison. She had received permission to live there. Her new home was to be a 10 ft by 10 ft cell in the women’s section of the prison. She would live as any other inmate, sleeping in her concrete cell and having only cold water and prison food. The amenities in her room included a crucifix on the wall, a Bible, a Spanish dictionary and a hard prison bed. In the morning, she lined up with the other prisoners for roll call. This was to be her home for the next 32 years.
“La Mama” also became known as “The Prison Angel.” She moved freely among the drug traffickers, thieves, murderers, rapists and others, touching cheeks and offering prayers. Many of these people were among the most violent and desperate of both men and women. Yet she happily walked with them and comforted and consoled them, dried their tears and held their heads between her hands as they were dying. She even single-handedly stopped prison riots.
Mother Antonia Brenner truly saw the face of Christ in each and every prisoner she came in contact with and extended mercy and love to them all. Why else would hardened criminals, some who had never loved or been loved, call the diminutive woman who hailed from Beverly Hills “Mama”? They loved her in return.
I believe that one day Mother Antonia Brenner will be canonized a saint. She was an example for each and every one of us showing us how to selflessly “love our neighbor” no matter who that might be. Her life also shows all of us that no matter who or what we are or where we have been or what we have done, God is always calling us.
Mother Antonia, please pray for us, especially during this Year of Mercy