Blog Post

The Remarkable Life of the "Prison Angel"

Prison AngelIB write: “I was given a book to read called ‘Prison Angel’, the story of a lady who considered herself a nun without being consecrated as one by our Catholic Church until years later. What is your opinion about this book?”

There is nothing untoward about this book based on the life story of a remarkable woman who devoted herself to ministering to inmates at a Tijuana prison, even going so far as to move into the prison to live with the people she desperately wanted to claim for Christ.

According to this obituary, Mother Antonia Brenner was born Mary Clark, the second of three children to an Irish immigrant family living in Los Angeles. Raised by her father after her mother’s early death, he eventually became a successful businessman selling office supplies. Before long, the family was living in a luxurious home in Beverly Hills with neighbors such as Hedy Lamarr and John Barrymore. Mary was only too happy to join the Hollywood social scene and fill her closets with expensive 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,” reports the Telegraph.

Mary grew into an attractive blonde who had no problem finding a partner and married a serviceman at the age of 19. The couple had three children before her husband’s habitual gambling left the family – and their marriage – in ruins. Five years later, she married again and had five more children.

In the meantime, she took over her father’s business but continued to do charity work in her spare time.

In 1965, she accompanied a priest on a mission trip to deliver medicine and other supplies to the notorious La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. She reports being so haunted by the plight of the inmates that she couldn’t get them out of her mind.

“When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter,” she recalled in an interview in 1982.

She began to make regular visits to the prison, always bringing along a car full of medicine, food, and clothes, and attending to the spiritual needs of both the inmates and guards.

During this time, her second marriage was falling apart and by 1966, she began to realize that her true vocation was prison work. This notion was reinforced by a powerful dream in which she was a prisoner awaiting execution and Jesus came to take her place.

After her marriage ended, she closed her father’s business, gave away all of her worldly possessions, donned a homemade nun’s habit and went to live in the women’s wing of La Mesa prison.

The facility housed 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners at the time and was known to be a hellhole full of rich drug lords who forced poorer inmates to live in squalor amid raw sewage, with no beds, food or even toilet paper unless their relatives brought supplies. In addition, brutal prison guards regularly mistreated the mentally ill and conducted 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,” the Telegraph reports.

“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.”

Eighteen months into her ministry, the Church became aware of her work. Juan Jesus Posadas, the Bishop of Tijuana, made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which works among prisons. This eventually brought her work to the attention of Pope John Paul II who have her his blessing. Mother Teresa also visited Tijuana to see her work in 1991.

Antonia began the process of forming the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour in 1997, an order of older women who serve the poor and downtrodden. She raised enough money to buy a house near the prison where she offered refuge to women leaving the prison, for families to use while visiting inmates, and for children in need of cancer treatment. The Bishop of Tijuana formally accepted the community in 2003.

Mother Antonio died in 2013 and is survived by seven of her children.

The story of this remarkable woman’s life is recounted in the 2005 biography, The Prison Angel, written by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.