The prison nun on a mission

Picture of Anthony E Dundon

Anthony E Dundon

Anthony is a UK-based writer

World Mission Sunday will be held this weekend. We all have a ‘mission’ in life. Not everyone is suited to working in drought-stricken Africa or helping India’s poor. But as Anthony Dundon writes, mission can mean a lot of different things and can occur when least expected. 

There was only one Antonia Brenner. The extraordinary life of this twice married divorcee, who became a nun and founded a religious order, aptly fits the adage that heaven is a place for those who make mistakes.

Mary Clarke had a privileged upbringing in the glamour of Hollywood. She was born on December 1, 1926, in Beverley Hills, California of Irish immigrant parents. Her mother died in the course of her fourth pregnancy. Her father was a successful sales executive, and Mary inherited his compassion and generosity for less fortunate members of society.

A vivacious and attractive blonde, demure and with an overpowering smile, at the age of 18 she married an ex-serviceman. She had three children from this marriage, but it was to end in divorce. A second marriage which resulted in five children also ended in divorce.

Mary now worked for her father’s sales company, but her hardest job was in caring for her young children. In the early 1960s while praying one day, she had a dream of the crucified Jesus and a call for her to tender to the sick and infirm. In 1965 she met Fr Henry Vetter, a missionary in Mexico, and with his help, she became involved in distributing food, clothes and other provisions to La Mesa, a prison in Tijuana, south of the Mexican border.

Mary ensured that she did not neglect her children, despite her commitments at La Mesa. She liked the work and in due course was given a contract to sell soft drinks to the prisoners, the proceeds of which went to the release of low-category prisoners.

For 10 years, she supplied the prisoners with much-needed necessities, but she also provided a listening ear and a warm heart that many of them cherished. Offenders started to call her “La Mama”. She sold her house and belongings and, with the warden’s permission, stayed in a three-metre square prison cell. She was present when they were ill and when disturbances relating to drugs and stabbings erupted; when inmates complained of mistreatment by police and other prisoners; and to tender support and affection to those who were dying.

In 1977, she started her own religious congregation, believing that God had chosen this life for her. With Fr Vetter’s help, she was now permitted to wear a religious habit and to take special vows. With the encouragement of Leo Maher, bishop of San Diego, she established a religious community, but continued to live in La Masa.

Bishop Maher knew about Mary Clarke and her work for the less fortunate. He gave her his full support to start a religious order for women, between the ages of 45 and 65, who would devote their lives to patients with AIDS-related illness and prisoners convicted of drug trafficking, murder, and other offences. The community was formally accepted in 2003. It was called the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour after a 17-century French missionary called St John Eudes. It had the support of the bishop of Tijuana.

She took the name Antonia in honour of Msgr Anthony Brouwers (1913–1964), pastor of St Paul’s Church, Los Angeles, a charismatic speaker and outspoken advocate of impoverished developing countries.

Members of the community, who had to renew their vows annually, had a convent near La Mesa prison where some of the sisters stayed. By 2004 the community had 12 sisters. Mothers, grandmothers, nurses, doctors, widows and divorcees, were among those to approach Mother Antonia about joining because other religious communities would not accept them. Many had raised large families and nearly all were at a stage where they wanted to do something rewarding and meaningful with the lives.

An AIDS worker, Betty Huntsbarger, from North Carolina heard about Mother Antonia and felt she could help the Eudist Servants. When her husband died, she was aged 42 with five children. As she tried to make her way in life, she became a counsellor for drug users. Her children had left home and in 2003 she travelled to Tijuana. She took vows to join the Eudist Servants when she was 65, and worked in an AIDS hospital and hospice and in other places where her services were needed.

In December 2004, Betty died of lung cancer after only 18 months in Tijuana. Her daughter, who was with her when she died, said that her mother was beginning something important in her life. “It meant the world to her to be with Mother Antonia … In many ways, although it was just for a short time, she had really found her home.”

Mother Antonia always said that living among the prisoners was different from visiting them. In her prison cell, she had a crucifix on the wall, a bible and a Spanish dictionary. She was happy in this environment and she saw the face of Lord Jesus in every prisoner.

She lived in the prison for more than 30 years and in that time, there was an improvement in the lives of the inmates, staff and their families. In 1982, La Mesa housed some 7500 inmates at a time. It resembled a village with its shops, food and trading outlets. She said: “Something happens to me when I see men behind bars. When it is cold, I wonder if the men are warm; when it is raining, if they have shelter …”

In October 1994, prisoners rioted and took away the guard’s guns. Sr Antonia walked amid smoke, screams and gunshot in the corridors of the prison. The warden advised her to take cover and some prisoners warned her that her life was in a danger. But then, in a quiet part of the prison, she addressed the prisoners. “My sons, the guns,” she said. “Give me the guns right now. God is watching. God is with us, and we’re going to help you.”

The prisoners surrendered and they were not punished. She negotiated a truce and took their grievances to the warden and conditions improved. The prison warden later claimed: “There is no other way to describe her. She is a saint.”

In the intervening years, Mother Antonia had to adapt to change. The Mexican government tried to modernise the prison. In August 2002, soldiers and riot police with helicopters invaded the prison and took 2000 inmates to a new federal prison about 80 kilometres away.

The atmosphere was different in La Mesa after this raid. Some 400 inmates remained and the visiting hours were enforced, but conjugal visits were allowed. Mother Antonia adapted to the times but she was unsure how long the authorities would allow her to remain in La Mesa.

At 78 it was harder for her to climb stairs and to carry heavy boxes. The draught in her cell did not help her poor circulation, and her hands and feet were often cold and covered with chilblains. She could not, however, imagine leaving La Mesa and said it all in her own words: “I wouldn’t trade my cell for anywhere in the world.”

She kept in touch with her seven children and many grandchildren. Her daughter described her as “a tiny woman with a lot of passion. We called her the Eveready battery. She wouldn’t stop.”

Due to declining health and a neuromuscular disorder, myasthenia gravis, she eventually had to leave Le Mesa to stay in the convent she had founded. Surrounded by caring colleagues, Mother Antonia passed away on October 17, 2013.

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