An Angel Behind Bars

From the Editor’s desk (Monday, October 31, 2016, Gaudium Press) The life of Mother Antonia Brenner, born Mary Clake, who went from Beverly Hills to Mexico’s most dangerous jails, is told in the book “The Prison Ange” written by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, and reviewed by Maureen Hartmann.

The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s journey from Beverly Hills to a life of service in a Mexican jail by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Penguin Press, 2005.Sem título-1.jpg

Mother Antonia, whose biography is detailed in The Prison Angel, was born Mary Clarke in 1926. Fifty years after her birth, Mary Clarke would undergo an astonishing transformation from an affluent life in Beverly Hills to an inspiring ministry of caring for the poorest prisoners in one of Mexico’s most dangerous and squalid jails.

Mary Clarke, now renamed Mother Antonia, walked out of her upper-middle-class life as a suburban wife and mother among Beverly Hills celebrities and began living in a jail cell in La Mesa prison in Tijuana among prisoners, thieves, murderers, and some of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords. Today, almost 30 years after she first took up residence in a jail cell in order to dedicate her life to serving the suffering poor inmates of La Mesa, she still lives in that Tijuana prison.

Her remarkable metamorphosis is chronicled by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan in their aptly titled book, The Prison Angel, a deeply moving account of her selfless life of compassion and conscience.

Mary Clarke’s life began amidst the suffering of the Great Depression, moved up into the affluent realms of Hollywood celebrities in Beverly Hills, and then, in a twist that no Hollywood scriptwriter would have imagined, led to her self-created religious vocation serving the poorest of the poor in a Mexican prison.

Mary Clarke’s father landed a job as a salesman when he was 17 and married Kathleen Mary Reilly. Mary was the second child of the union. Her mother Kathleen died before Mary’s third birthday, and, on top of the grief, her father lost his job due to the economic setbacks of the Depression.

Two years after the death of Kathleen, Mary’s father Joe Clarke remarried to Marion Hadley. He did odd jobs to support his family of four. Finally, he was hired back by his sales company, and the family soon could afford to move into a Beverly Hills estate, where Mary grew up with wealthy neighbors and Hollywood celebrities. Mary herself was offered a job by the famous movie director and choreographer Busby Berkeley.

But her life was destined to follow a very different path. Mary Clarke became interested in the plight of the suffering; and when she was 15, she persuaded the powers that be in the armed forces to accept her into the Women’s Ambulance Corps, even though the usual entry age was 18. This was her contribution to the United States’ entry into the war in 1941.

Five years later, Mary fell in love with a war buddy of her older brother Joseph, Ray Monahan, and the couple married soon afterwards. Her first pregnancy ended in brain damage to her little boy during delivery, his death three days after birth, and physical pain for her from the time of birth until today.

Meanwhile, her first marriage was not working out. Ray had developed a gambling addiction and the two no longer prayed together in the morning and no longer played board games at night. As soon as a divorce from Ray was finalized, she married Carl Brenner in Las Vegas, in 1950. But her relationship with Carl also began to deteriorate. Even though she owned a business which supplied carbon paper and office supplies to U.S. troops, being a working mother was not fulfilling enough for Mary Brenner.

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At that time, her brother Joe suggested that she might collect clothing and medicine for orphaned children in Korea. From this project grew her prolific, widespread charity work. Through her volunteer work, Mary met Monsignor Anthony Brouwers who became her confidante, and from him she took the name Mother Antonia.

It was a call from Fr. Henry Vetter, who had heard about her advocacy for the poor, that led her to find her true life’s work. He invited her to come down to Tijuana, Mexico, with him to see more people in desperate need than she had ever seen in her life.

Mary and Fr. Vetter brought a car full of supplies and medicine and they visited a couple hospitals. Then they went to La Mesa Penitentiary. She was most moved by the poverty of the prison infirmary, where patients lay on the floor because there were not enough cots to accommodate them. She began coming on regular visits to La Mesa, even though it was a three-hour drive from her home in Los Angeles.

In 1969, Mary had a dream that she was a prisoner who was to be executed, and Christ came to be executed in her stead. This meant to her that she belonged as a volunteer at La Mesa prison. Meanwhile, she felt more and more guilty about running the business that she inherited from her father, which benefited the armed forces. In 1970, she closed the business. Her second marriage also failed, and she and Carl separated in 1972.

She began taking long walks on the beach, wondering what she would do with the rest of her life. At this point, she applied to the Maryknoll Sisters because she wanted to dedicate her life to working with the poor. But they refused to accept her because she was beyond the age limit of 35, and was divorced twice.

Finally, out of her problems grew the idea that she could become a kind of independent sister who would live in La Mesa. The warden, seeing her working late at night, had invited her to stay overnight in the prison whenever she wanted. She decided that she would stay in La Mesa permanently. She began with overnight stays twice a week, and began giving away her possessions. She had a neighbor stay at her home in Ventura to look after her son Anthony during the nights she stayed in the penitentiary.

As authors Jordan and Sullivan put it, “On March 19, 1977, Mary Brenner woke up in her house in Ventura and slipped on a simple long-sleeve black dress and a black veil that she sewed her herself, which she thought looked ‘nunny.’ Then she stood before the mirror and disappeared. The woman looking back at her was Mother Antonia.”

She then went to Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Ventura, and took private vows of obedience, chastity, fidelity, and service. Jordan and Sullivan quote her, “I knew that I had been an outsider to suffering all my life. All of a sudden it occurred to me, when I step over that line and walk through that door, I became an insider with them…. Somehow the prison was the place where I finally experienced the freedom to be myself.”

Probably the most difficult aspect of the move to La Mesa was giving up her relation to her youngest son, Anthony. He was still staying with her, and she believed he was the one in her family most hurt by the divorce. She sent Anthony to live with his father, even though she had been awarded primary custody of him.

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Jordan and Sullivan report: “In March 1978, Mother Antonia sold her home and moved into the prison permanently. She spent a few months in a bunk bed in the women’s cell-block, and then the warden furnished her with her own cell (carraca).”

In one of her first days in residence at La Mesa prison, a rapist was beaten by his fellow inmates. Mother Antonia knelt down beside him and tried to wash the man’s wounds with a rag while saying the “Hail Mary” in Spanish. A guard told her not to trouble herself, since the man was a rapist and deserved the beating. Mother Antonia couldn’t remember the words of the “Hail Mary” in Spanish, and the inmate finished the

The guard, now crying, helped her to lift the patient to a hospital bed and to clean his wounds. According to Jordan and Sullivan, “It was an early victory in a long crusade to persuade the guards to be more humane.”

She did not remain alone long in her effort to help the residents of La Mesa. She educated people in San Diego about the needs of the prisoners, and got them to donate food and toiletries to her ministry.

She still longed for the official sanction of the Catholic Church for her way of life and ministry, and made an appointment with Bishop Posada of Tijuana. He received her and her life story warmly, and offered to put on her the white habit of the Mercedarians, an order of priests who made prisoners the recipients of their ministry. The date set for the reception into the order was September 24, 1978.

She also asked the blessing of Bishop Maher in San Diego. She told him her story, and he offered to make her an auxiliary to the bishop, as Catholic orders in the diocese were.

As she drove back to La Mesa from the bishop’s office, in her excitement, she had an idea how to expand her ministry – getting dental visits for the prison residents. She realized that many of the prisoners that lived in poverty had never had the luxury of a dental visit, and could not get jobs because of the appearance of their smiles, some missing front teeth.

She persuaded a dentist well-known in Tijuana to set up a small office in the prison. She paid the actual cost of his and other dental services, for about four thousand “new smiles.” She also got a plastic surgeon, Dr. R. Merrel, to remove blemishes such as tattoos and knife scars from many prisoners.

This service to prisoners was not an escape from the real world. Some of the seamiest clients of her aid were the drug traffickers. La Mesa was a crossroads in the Mexican-American drug trade. Her clients included some of the major drug lords. She said, “We shouldn’t condemn them; we should condemn what they’ve done.”

The drug traffickers were too wealthy to benefit from her free toothpaste or second-hand shoes. However, she could influence them to see the damage and pain that their way of earning a living inflicted on innocent people, and therefore get out of the drug trade. She helped three corporate traders, Jose Contreras Subias, and Roberto and Helen Hernandez, turn their lives around permanently.

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Mother Antonia even helped some of their victims by persuading them to forgive the murderers of family members. One time she got down on her knees in church where a funeral had just been held, to beg Jose, the uncle of a murder victim, to forgive the murderer.

Probably the most inspiring and heroic incidents of her ministry were the ending of two prison riots. One was in 1989. The police raided the cells of drug traders, active with drugs even while they were behind bars. Prisoners began throwing coke bottles at the police and the police fired their guns. Mother Antonia walked in, right in the path of the bottles and bullets, with her hands raised high over her head. The policemen and inmates yelled for her to stay away, but she kept on walking, saying, “Mis hijos, mis hijos [‘my sons’]. Stop this. You must stop this now.” Astonishingly, the dozens of police and guards and hundreds of rioting inmates put down their weapons.

Another riot erupted on Halloween night, 1994. Prisoners in the punishment cells on the third floor had devised a plan for gaining control of the institution. One called a guard over ostensibly to ask a question, and when the guard got close to the bars, the prisoner pinned him to the bars and took his gun and keys. The prisoners then unlocked the doors to the cells and told the other guards to leave.

Mother Antonia, coming back home from an errand, was stopped by the assistant warden, who told her that she could not enter, that it was too dangerous. She persuaded him to telephone the warden, who at first told her the same thing. She argued with him that it is her mission to be inside with the inmates. The warden knew that there was the possibility of a massacre and that the prisoners listened to her. He finally ordered the prison personnel to let her in.

Inside, it was dark because the guards had turned off the electricity before they left. She made her way to the punishment cells on the third floor. She heard the cells’ inmates and called out to them. She came upon an inmate she knew as “Blackie.” She fell to her knees, pleading with him. “It’s not right that you’re locked up here, hungry and thirsty. We can take care of those things, but this isn’t the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons.”

“Mother,” Blackie said softly, looking down at her. “As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window.”

Even while ministering to inmates of La Mesa enitentiary, Mother Antonia founded a women’s religious order, the Servants of the Eleventh Hour, designed to give older women a way to dedicate their lives to working with the poor. The normal entry age is 45 years to 65 years, and divorce in one’s life is not an impediment to entry.

The Prison Angel tells a real-life drama about good overcoming evil, love overcoming hatred. It is an example of something that works, just as civil disobedience has at times changed the opponents’ hearts.

Any reader who wishes to contact Mother Antonia should write: Mother Antonia Brenner, Servants of the Eleventh Hour, c/o Pat Smith, 3542 Governor Dr., San Diego, CA 92122, or e-mail

Source Street Spirit

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