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'Prison Angel' Traded Riches for Spirituality

Sister Antonia Brenner lived in Beverly Hills but started a new life in a Mexican penitentiary, where she serves and soothes inmates.

January 08, 2006|Elliot Spagat | Associated Press Writer

TIJUANA — The cell at the end of the dark hallway is barely big enough for a cot, a desk and a folding chair. There lives Sister Antonia Brenner, an aging American nun who was raised in Beverly Hills but abandoned a life of rare privilege to live in a notorious Mexican prison.

Her neighbors are no longer Hollywood stars, but murderers, drug runners and human smugglers. They know her as angel de la carcel -- the prison angel.

Brenner, 79, looks puzzled when asked what motivated her riches-to-rags choice.

"I don't understand why people are so amazed," she says. "To give help is easy. To ask for it is hard."

Brenner's days are jammed. She administers quick counseling sessions and does countless small tasks on behalf of the 7,100 inmates at La Mesa State Penitentiary, just across the U.S. border from San Diego. In come bandages, soap and medicine; out go messages to loved ones beyond the prison's high walls.

Brenner has long been a caretaker -- she raised seven children.

Then, at 50, she traded her dresses and a spacious home for a homemade habit and a prison where conditions have led to inmate riots, including three that she helped quell.

"I'm effective in riots because I'm not afraid. I just pray and walk into it," she said. "A woman in a white veil walks in, someone they know loves them. So silence comes, explanation comes and arms go down."

Her work has been recognized in books and, last month, she was inducted into the Washington-based Hall of Fame for Caring Americans. Her admirers at the prison include not just inmates but wardens and guards as well.

"Wardens come and go, and I will go too, but Mother Antonia will always be here," said Jose Francisco Jimenez Gomez, warden for the last year and a half. "She is like a ray of sunshine."

The only sunlight in her tiny cell filters through two small windows with a view of a guard tower and barbed-wire fence. A white sheet serves as the door to a cramped bathroom with a cold-water shower.

She walks through the prison with a beaming smile, waving at inmates and guards and kissing many on their cheeks. She addresses them as mi hijo -- my son. Many smile, confide a few words and thank her for some odd favor.

"Everyone loves her," says Jose Luis Romero, who is serving 4 1/2 years for stealing a car. "You always feel better about yourself after seeing her."

Brenner was born Mary Clarke in Los Angeles, the second of three children. Her father made a fortune selling office supplies to defense contractors during World War II. The family lived in Beverly Hills and had an 11-bedroom, ocean-view summer home in Laguna Beach. Later, she moved to Ventura County, her last home before the prison.

After two failed marriages, Brenner immersed herself more deeply in charity work and was deeply influenced by a Los Angeles priest, Anthony Brouwers. When she became a nun in 1977, 13 years after Brouwers died, she named herself Sister Antonia in his honor.

Brenner first visited the prison in 1965 on a trip to deliver medicine and supplies to Tijuana hospitals. She moved in 12 years later, and her routine has changed little.

She rises around 5 a.m. for prayer, then distributes prayer cards to inmates who are crammed inside a chain-link fence awaiting a court appearance. Four days a week, she speaks at the prison's new church, an orange building with five rows of wooden benches and white plastic chairs.

"Everything eventually ends -- your money, your sickness, your family, your time in jail," she tells about 20 sweatsuit-clad inmates, speaking in Spanish. "The only thing that won't end is Christ's love for you."

From there, she walks the grounds. A guard thanks her for finding a wheelchair for his grandmother, who died that morning. "She can talk to the prisoners in a way that the guards cannot," says guard Ulises Romero Rubio. "She knows how to calm their nerves."

Another nun drives her a few blocks to her office at Casa Campos de San Miguel, which she named for Rigo Campos, a drug dealer gunned down in 1991 after his release from La Mesa. The house is also a shelter for former female inmates and cancer patients and a home for some of the 13 nuns in the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, the Roman Catholic order that Brenner founded in the 1990s.

Her idea was to give women 45 to 65 years old a way to be accepted as nuns.

"Their families have grown up, their husbands have died, they're divorced, or they were never married," Brenner says. "They're free to give the rest of their lives. That's why it's called the Eleventh Hour."

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