Mother Antonia Brenner, who has died aged 86, was a twice-divorced former Hollywood socialite and mother of seven who, in 1977, gave away most of her possessions, put on a homemade nun’s habit and went to live in a Mexican prison.
At first the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; indeed for many years, as a divorcée she had been unable to take Holy Communion. Nothing daunted, she left her home in Ventura, California, packed in her job, made her vows in private and moved into a bunk in the women’s wing of La Mesa Tijuana, a prison housing 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners, later moving to her own 10-by-10-ft concrete cell.
La Mesa was a notorious hellhole where rich drug lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even lavatory paper unless their relatives brought supplies. Brutalized prison guards contributed to the misery, mistreating the mentally ill and administering cruel interrogations.
Over the next 30 years “Madre Antonia,” as she came to be known, transformed the atmosphere. Armed with a Bible, a Spanish dictionary, and her own unassailable moral authority, she waded into riots and gun battles; shamed prison authorities into improving conditions and brought human rights violations to the attention of newspapers.
She persuaded doctors and dentists to hold free clinics, got local bakers to donate bread to supplement the meager prison rations, rescued lavatories from junk yards and insisted on their being installed, prayed with prisoners and guards and got to know their families. She taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong, and many would later testify that her example had persuaded them to mend their ways.
She also took on the Mexican legal system, raising money to pay fines to keep petty offenders out of prison and accompanying inmates to court in order to force judges to justify the wildly different sentences they handed out to rich and poor. One Tijuana judge acknowledged that she had convinced him that class should not be a factor in the administration of justice.
After a year her service came to the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities, and 18 months into her ministry the Bishop of Tijuana, Juan Jesus Posadas, made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which works among prisoners. Subsequently her work came to the attention of Pope John Paul II who gave her his blessing. In 1991 Mother Teresa visited Tijuana to see her work.
In 1997 Antonia began the process of forming the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, a religious community of women who serve the poor and downtrodden. She bought a house near the prison to serve as a refuge for women leaving the prison, for women and children visiting family members, and women and children in Tijuana for cancer treatment. In 2003 the community, many of them older women who had been turned away by other religious communities because of their age, was formally accepted by the Bishop of Tijuana.
The second of three children, she was born Mary Clarke on December 1 1926 in Los Angeles, to Irish immigrant parents. Her mother died when she was pregnant with her fourth child, leaving her 24-year-old husband to raise his children on his own.
During the Depression he struggled to keep food on the table, but in Mary’s teenage years he became a successful businessman, supplying carbon paper and other office items, and moved his family to a luxurious new home in Beverly Hills, where neighbors included Hedy Lamarr, John Barrymore, and Dinah Shore. Weekends were spent at a beach house overlooking the Pacific and, as she moved into the Hollywood social scene, Mary Clarke’s wardrobe filled with mink coats and ball gowns.
Yet her father never allowed his children to forget their duty to the less fortunate and with her father’s encouragement she became involved in projects to send medical supplies to people in need in Africa, India, Korea, the Philippines and South America.
A vivacious and attractive blonde, Mary had no shortage of male admirers, and at the age of 19 she married a former serviceman. They had three children (one of whom predeceased her), but her husband’s addiction to gambling left the family in debt. Five years later she divorced him and went to work to support her children. In 1950 she married Carl Brenner, with whom she had five more children. When her father died in 1956, she took over his business. All the time she continued to do charity work.
In 1965 she accompanied a priest on a mission to deliver medicine and other supplies to Tijuana, Mexico, where they ended up at La Mesa prison. She was so haunted by the plight of the inmates, she could not stop thinking about them. “When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter,” she recalled in an interview in 1982. She began visiting the prison on a regular basis, bringing in carloads of medicine, food and clothes, and attending to the material and spiritual needs of both inmates and guards.
From early on in her second marriage Mary Brenner realized that she and her husband had little in common, and as time went by they lived almost completely separate lives. By 1966 she had come to believe that her prison work was her true vocation, inspired by a dream in which she was a prisoner awaiting execution and Christ came to take her place. In 1970 she closed her father’s business and two years later divorced her husband.
In 2005 Mother Antonia was the subject of a book, The Prison Angel, by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.
She remained in regular contact with her seven children, who survive her.