Sister Antonia Brenner, a twice-divorced mother of seven turned "prison angel" who spent the last three decades of her life ministering to inmates at a Mexican penitentiary, has died. She was 86.
Brenner moved into a 10-by-10-foot cell at Tijuana's notorious La Mesa penitentiary, where she came to be known as "La Mama" by the prisoners, whom she called her children. She spent her time "mending broken lives, easing tensions and dispensing everything from toothbrushes to bail money," according to the Los Angeles Times.
"She was born Mary Clarke in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, 1926, to Irish immigrant parents. Her father grew wealthy running an office supply business, and the family counted Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant among their neighbors. She married and raised four daughters and three sons, all the while becoming deeply involved in charity work.
"In 1977, after her children were grown and two marriages had ended in divorce — a source of sadness that she rarely talked about — Brenner gave away her expensive clothes and belongings, left her Ventura apartment and moved to La Mesa penitentiary. She had delivered donations in the past to the prison, each visit filling her with compassion.
" 'Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars. ... When I left, I thought a lot about the men. When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter,' Brenner told the Times in a 1982 interview. 'I wondered if they had medicine and how their families were doing. ...You know, when I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I'd come home.' "
The San Diego Tribune adds:
"With her small frame, sunny disposition, and heavily accented Spanish, she delved fearlessly into a world riddled with poverty and violence, once quelling a riot by walking into the darkened penitentiary taken over by armed and angry inmates.
"She urged guards to respect the petty thieves, rapists, murderers and drug traffickers in their custody, speaking out against beatings and torture of inmates. But she also reached out to those in law enforcement, raising funds for the families of those killed in the line of duty.
" 'I think prison freed me,' she once said in an interview."
Brenner was the subject of a book, The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey From Beverly Hills to a Life Of Service in a Mexican Jail and a 2010 documentary, La Mama: An American Nun's Life in a Mexican Prison.
The Times says she established her own religious order, the Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, in the late 1990s. The newspaper quotes Tijuana Archbishop Rafael Romo as saying Brenner possessed the qualities of a saint and that her death was a "terrible loss."