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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant - Global Leader - FTSE 250

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Representative

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family run school photogra...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - OTE £42,000

£28000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a leading s...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map