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Mother Antonia Brenner: Socialite turned nun who ended a prison riot

Amid smoke, screams and gunshots, she appealed to her ‘sons’ to give up their weapons

Mary Clarke grew up in the luxury of Beverly Hills, where movie stars such as Hedy Lamarr, William Powell, and Dinah Shore were among her neighbours. She spent weekends at a roomy beach house overlooking the Pacific, and had closets filled with mink coats and ballgowns. She was married twice, raised seven children and managed her father’s office-supply business after his death. In the midst of this busy life she devoted more and more time to charity, which she considered a crucial part of her Catholic faith.

In 1965, she accompanied a priest on a mission to deliver medicine and other supplies to Tijuana, Mexico. After several other stops they ended up at the gate of one of the country’s most notorious prisons, a state penitentiary called La Mesa. The warden invited them inside to drop off their donations at the infirmary.

She began to visit the prison more often, attending to the needs of the inmates, guards and police, and the transformation of Mary Clarke Brenner had begun. In 1977, when most of her children had grown up, she moved to La Mesa. Although she had no formal religious training, she sewed her own nun’s habit and slept in a bunk in the women’s wing of the prison. She later lived for years in a 10ft by 10ft cell, with the walls painted pink.

She made it her vocation to attend to the needs of some of the most destitute and dangerous people in Mexico. She brought them medicine, bedding, clothing and food. She invited doctors and dentists from California to provide medical care and worked with Mexican officials to improve conditions in La Mesa and other prisons.

When she walked through the halls, prisoners kissed her hand, and she kissed theirs. Notorious criminals confessed to her and pledged to change their lives. In Tijuana and throughout Mexico she was known as Madre Antonia – Mother Antonia.

She received the blessings of a Mexican bishop of the Catholic Church, was greeted by Pope John Paul II, and was commended by the Mexican President, Vicente Fox. She went on to found a religious order for older women seeking to help the poor. Mother Antonia lived in the prison for more than 30 years, improving the lives of thousands of prisoners, guards, and their families. She was the subject of a 2005 book by the Washington Post journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, The Prison Angel, and a later documentary film.

“Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars,” Mother Antonia said in 1982. “When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter .... When I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I’d come home.”

She was born Mary Clarke in Los Angeles in 1926. Her father became the owner of a prosperous office-supply business and moved the family to Beverly Hills. Married twice, she had three children by her first husband and five by her second, Carl Brenner. Mother Antonia was aware of the irony of a twice-divorced woman donning a religious habit, but remained close to her children after moving to Tijuana.

“She was extremely attentive and caring, even though far away,” her daughter Carol said. At times, she noted, “I could hear the bullets shot outside, hitting the walls of her cell .... She wasn’t fearful at all, but I was.”

Mother Antonia wore a cross made by inmates from nails and copper wire. It had a large Star of David at its centre, symbolic of her father’s respect for Jewish people and her own sense of open-armed acceptance.

La Mesa prison held as many as 7,500 inmates at a time, and in some ways it was like a village, with shops, food and services trading. Mother Antonia said she even had kittens taking up residence outside her door.

One of her most trying moments came on Halloween night in 1994 when some prisoners took guards hostage and captured their guns, and a full-scale riot broke out. Parts of the prison were on fire. Amid smoke, screams and gunshots, the 5ft 2in Mother Antonia walked through the halls in her habit. The warden told her to seek safety; even the prisoners warned her that her life was in danger. She kept walking. First, a few men followed. Then she drew a larger crowd of prisoners behind her. She quietly addressed the prisoners as she always did, calling out, “My sons.”

“I said, ‘The guns,’” she recalled. “‘Give me the weapons right now, sons. Give them to me. God is watching. God is with us, and we’re going to help you.’” The prisoners laid down their weapons, and the riot came to end. Mother Antonia negotiated a truce and told the inmates they would not be punished. She took their grievances to the warden, and conditions quickly improved. “I am hard on crime, but not on persons,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”

The prison warden, Carlos Lugo Felix, had another name for Mother Antonia: “There is no other way to describe her. She is a saint.”

She had heart ailments and myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder, and died at the headquarters of the religious order she founded, Sisters of the Eleventh Hour of St John Eudes.

Matt Schudel

© The Washington Post

Mary Clarke, nun and activist: born Los Angeles 1 December 1926; married firstly Ray Monahan (marriage dissolved (two children, and one child deceased), 1950 Carl Brenner (marriage dissolved; five children); died Tijuana, Mexico 17 October 2013.