Jun 01, 2017 2027 Larry Peterson,

Remembering the ‘Prison Angel’ | Mother Antonia Brenner

Can a Catholic woman get married, be twice divorced, give birth to eight children with two different men, become a nun, and eventually found a new religious order? The answer is “Yes!” In fact, this same woman would, on Mother’s Day in 1990, walk the stairs alone to present the gifts to then Pope John Paul II for the Mass he was offering during his visit to Mexico and, in return, receive his blessing. After all, with God, all things are possible.

I am writing about Mother Antonia Brenner who came to be known as the “Prison Angel” of La Mesa Prison. Mother Antonia died on October 17, 2013. I believe history will show that this woman was one of the greatest among Catholic women of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Mary Clarke was born in Beverly Hills on December 1, 1926. Her dad, Joe Clarke, was a successful businessman and Mary and her two siblings grew up surrounded with affluence and the glitz of the movie world. Their neighbors included luminaries such as William Powell, Hedy Lamarr and John Barrymore.

Joe Clarke had a deep love for all people. No matter how good life was for his family, he made sure that his kids were always taught to help the less fortunate. That desire to help others, nurtured by her father, would blossom in Mary and was destined to explode. However, before the “explosion,” Mary embarked on a circuitous life journey.

She married at eighteen years of age and had three children, the first dying shortly after birth. That marriage ended in divorce. As a divorcee, Mary now felt distanced from her Catholic upbringing. She married again, this time in a civil service in Las Vegas. It was to a man named Carl Brenner. She and Carl had five children together, but ultimately, that marriage also ended in divorce. God “writes straight with crooked lines” and apparently the Holy Spirit had His eye on Mary Clarke Brenner her entire life. He was about to shower His grace all over His daughter.

Mary became more and more involved in charity work. In 1965, she met a priest by the name of Father Henry Vetter. He took her along on a delivery of food, medicine, and clothing to the prisoners at La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana. The plight of the prisoners at La Mesa (considered among the worst in Mexico) impacted her greatly. As time went by, her growing compassion and love of neighbor would become focused on these people. They would become her specialty, her ministry, her purpose in life.

Mary Brenner spent the next ten years traveling back and forth to La Mesa Prison bringing needed supplies, but mostly love and mercy. Her presence became well known and the prisoners, both men and women, began looking forward to her visits. They began calling her “La Mama.” The warden even gave her accommodations so that she could sleep over.

Mary took the name of Antonia (after her mentor, Monsignor Anthony Bowers) and became Mother Antonia Brenner. She sewed together a nun’s habit, put it on, and went to see Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego, California. She got down on her knees and told him her story. He had heard all about her and gave her his blessing, validating her ministry. She would even start a new order—the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, an order for women forty-five years old and older who wanted to serve the less fortunate. In addition to the blessing from Bishop Maher, Mother Antonio also received the blessing of Bishop Juan Jesus Posadas of Tijuana. She had Church authorization for her ministry from bishops in two separate countries.

After her kids were grown, Mother Antonio gave away her belongings, moved out of her home in Ventura and headed to La Mesa Prison. She had received permission to live there. Her new home was to be a 10 foot by 10 foot cell in the women’s section of the prison. She would live as any other inmate, sleeping in a concrete cell and having only cold water and prison food. The amenities in her room included a Crucifix on the wall, a Bible, a Spanish dictionary, and a hard prison bed. In the mornings, she would line up with the other prisoners for roll call. This was to be her home for the next thirty-two years.

“La Mama” also became known as “The Prison Angel.” She moved freely among the drug traffickers, thieves, murderers, rapists and others, touching cheeks and offering prayers. Many of these people were among the most violent and desperate of both men and women. Yet she happily walked with them and comforted and consoled them, dried their tears and held their heads between her hands as they were dying. She even single-handedly stopped prison riots.

Mother Antonia Brenner truly saw the face of Christ in each and every prisoner she came in contact with and extended God’s mercy and love to them all. Why else would hardened criminals, some of whom who had never loved or been loved, call the diminutive woman who hailed from Beverly Hills, “La Mama”? They loved her in return.

I believe that one day Mother Antonia Brenner will be canonized a saint. She is an example for each and every one of us, showing us how to selflessly love our neighbor no matter who our neighbor might be. Her life also shows all of us that no matter who or what we are or where we have been or what we have done, God is always calling us.

Mother Antonia, please pray for us to be merciful like our Heavenly Father!


Larry Peterson

Larry Peterson (www.larrypeterson-author.com) is a Catholic/Christian blogger. His work has appeared in publications such as Zenit from Rome, Aleteia, New Evangelists, Top Catholic Blogs, Big Pulpit, Catholic 365.com and others. His first children's picture book, "Slippery Willie's Stupid, Ugly Shoes" was published in 2011. His novels include "The Priest & The Peaches" and "The Demons of Abadon." Peterson belongs to the Catholic Writer’s Guild, The Catholic Writer’s Society, The Knights of Columbus, and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. He has been an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion for over twenty years, bringing communion to the homebound and hospitalized. Peterson resides in Pinellas Park, Florida and his kids and six grandchildren all live within three miles of each other. Visit www.slipperywillie.blogspot.com to enjoy more of his inspiring writings.

Latest Articles