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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remembering Mother Antonia

Mother Antonia Brenner, who left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills in 1978 to minister to inmates in a notorious Mexican prison, eventually becoming a nun and spending more than 30 years living in a cell to be closer to those she served, died of heart failure on Thursday in Tijuana, Mexico. She was 86.  Her joyous transition has been in recent days reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN and many others taking note of  her remarkable life.  She is the founder of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, a community of about 50 sisters serving prisoners and the poor.

Born Mary Clarke, she was a twice-divorced mother of eight children when she initially began doing volunteer work for the poor in Mexico in the 1960s. In 1978 she had been led to La Mesa state penitentiary, which housed convicted murderers, gang leaders, rapists and other serious felons. Mother Antonia began providing for inmates’ basic needs, giving them aspirin, blankets, toiletries and prescription eyeglasses. She sang in worship services. She received a prison contract to sell soda to prisoners and used the proceeds to bail out low-level offenders. If a prisoner died, of illness or in a gang fight, she prepared him for burial.

Inmates tell the story of how Mother Antonia once walked into the middle of a prison riot while bullets flew and tear gas filled the air. When the inmates saw her, fearless in her habit, the fighting stopped. She never seemed to stop smiling.

Mother, early on in her ministry moved into the women’s section of the prison in a cell that was about 10 feet by 10 feet with only cold running water for showers. She could come and go freely, but she devoted herself to the lives inside. Her mission constantly expanded, from the inmates and guards to their families.  “It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she told The Washington Post in 2002. “I have to be here with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has an appendix [attack], in case someone dies.”

Mary Clarke was born on Dec. 1, 1926, in Los Angeles and grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., the second of three children. Her mother, Kathleen, died while pregnant with her fourth child. Her father, Joseph, was a successful sales executive in the office supply industry, and the family had a second home overlooking the ocean. She married at 18, but it did not last long. A second marriage, to Carl Brenner, lasted 25 years, but it also ended in divorce. 

Mother Antonia’s work drew praise around the world, including from President Vicente Fox of Mexico and President Ronald Reagan. In 1991, she met Mother Teresa when she visited Tijuana.  She went to her eternal reward this past Thursday, funeral Mass and burial arrangements are pending.

One of her last public appearances was a few months ago speaking at our annual Servants of the Father of Mercy retreat at the Benedictine Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, CA.  Mother, although told to go to ER immediately by her physician, instead she came to the retreat first, giving her message, consolation, wisdom and encouragement and then tended to herself second.  That is classic Mother Antonia, putting others first - always.  She told the participants to give all to God - not just part, expect nothing in return and most of all, to live charity serving the poor, homeless, broken and prisoner.  May you be blessed by these photos, some of the last pictures of her life here on earth.
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