Sunday 19 January 2020

Socialite who became a nun and dedicated life to prisoners' rights

Obituary - Mother Antonia Brenner

Sad farewell: 'Madre Antonia' fought to get better treatment for the inmates being held in La Mesa Prison
Sad farewell: 'Madre Antonia' fought to get better treatment for the inmates being held in La Mesa Prison

Mother Antonia Brenner, who has died aged 86, was a twice-divorced former Hollywood socialite and mum of seven who, in 1977, gave away most of her possessions, put on a homemade nun's habit and lived in a Mexican prison.

At first the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; indeed for many years, as a divorcee she was unable to take Holy Communion.

Undaunted, she left her home in Ventura, California, packed in her job, made her vows in private and moved into a bunk in the women's wing of La Mesa Tijuana, a prison housing 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners, later moving to her own 10-by-10-foot concrete cell.

La Mesa was a notorious hellhole where rich drug-lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even toilet paper unless their relatives brought supplies.

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.

She persuaded doctors and dentists to hold free clinics; got local bakers to donate bread to supplement the meagre prison rations; rescued toilets from junk yards; prayed with prisoners and guards and got to know their families.

She also took on the Mexican legal system, accompanying inmates to court in order to force judges to justify the wildly different sentences they handed out to rich and poor.

Some 18 months into her ministry, the Bishop of Tijuana, Juan Jesus Posadas, made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which works among prisoners.

Subsequently her work came to the attention of Pope John Paul II who gave her his blessing.

In 1991, Mother Teresa visited Tijuana to see her work. In 1997, Antonia began the process of forming the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, a religious community of women who serve the poor and downtrodden.

She bought a house near the prison to serve as a refuge for women leaving the prison; for women and children visiting family; and women and children in Tijuana for cancer treatment. In 2003, her religious community was accepted by the Bishop of Tijuana.

The second of three children, she was born Mary Clarke on December 1 1926 in Los Angeles, to Irish immigrant parents. Her mother died when she was pregnant with her fourth child, leaving her 24-year-old husband to raise his children on his own.

During the Depression he struggled to keep food on the table, but in Mary's teenage years his office supply business was successful enough that it allowed him to move his family to a luxurious new home in Beverly Hills, where neighbours included Hedy Lamarr, John Barrymore and Dinah Shore. As she moved into the Hollywood social scene, Mary Clarke's wardrobe filled with mink coats and ball gowns.

Yet her father never let his children forget the less fortunate and she became involved in projects to send medical supplies to people in need in Africa, India, Korea, the Philippines and South America.

A vivacious and attractive blonde, Mary had no shortage of male admirers, and at the age of 19 she married a former serviceman. They had three children (one of whom predeceased her), but her husband's addiction to gambling left the family in debt. Five years later she divorced him. In 1950 she married Carl Brenner, with whom she had five more children.

When her father died in 1956, she took over his business. All the time she continued to do charity work.

In 1965, she accompanied a priest on a mission to deliver medicine and supplies to Tijuana, Mexico, where they ended up at La Mesa. She was so haunted by the inmates' plight she could not stop thinking about them.

She began visiting the prison on a regular basis, bringing in carloads of medicine, food and clothes, and attending to the material and spiritual needs of both inmates and guards.

From early on in her second marriage, Mary Brenner realised that she and her husband had little in common, and as time went by they lived almost completely separate lives.

By 1966, she had come to believe that her prison work was her true vocation. In 1970 she closed her father's business and two years later divorced her husband.

In 2005, Mother Antonia was the subject of a book, The Prison Angel, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.

She stayed in regular contact with her seven children, who survive her.

Irish Independent

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