LOS ANGELES — Mother Antonia Brenner, who married and divorced twice before converting to the Catholic faith and devoting herself to prison ministry for nearly 39 years in Tijuana, died Oct. 17 at the age of 86.
“Humanly speaking, this is an irreparable loss, but from the point of view of the mission that she had, I think we have won something,” Archbishop Rafael Romo Munoz of Tijuana said after receiving news of her death.
“She is a woman with the characteristics of a saint. I say that because I knew her and loved her a lot. I also received much affection from her. She has the traits of a saint, and that is why the Church has come out winning.”
Mother Antonia Brenner was born Mary Clarke and was the mother of eight and lived in Beverly Hills prior to her conversion, which was effected by a dream. Even before this, she had done volunteer work for the poor in both Mexico and California.
In 1969, she dreamt she was a prisoner at Calvary, preparing to be executed. Suddenly, Jesus appeared and offered to die in her place, which she refused, saying she would never leave him no matter what happened to her.
After this dream, Mother Antonia decided to devote her life to the Church.
Despite initial difficulties due to her status as a divorcee, in 2003, she founded the order of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, which was founded for older women who feel called to serve the poor.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1982 about her prison ministry, Mother Antonia said, “Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars. … When I left, I thought a lot about the men. When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter.
“I wondered if they had medicine and how their families were doing. … When I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I'd come home.”
Both for the guards and the inmates at La Mesa Penitentiary, Mother Antonia was the prison angel. But behind bars she was known as “Mama.”
In her interview with the Times, Mother Antonia said the prisoners needed “to accept that they're wrong. They have to see the consequences. They have to feel the agony … but I do love them dearly.”
Mother Antonia and her Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour carried out their work from the Heart of Mary Home in Tijuana, where candidates for the congregation spend a period of discernment and formation before fully joining.