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