Friday, 1 November 2013

Mother Antonia: from successful businesswoman in Beverly Hills to God's Entrepeneur



Mary Clarke was an affluent blonde bombshell who lived the American dream to the full. But she found a life of glamour in Beverly Hills to be lacking and swapped it for a grim 10ft by 10ft prison cell, to be as near as possible to the prisoners of La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. 


Born December 1 1926, she was the second child of the Irish immigrants Joseph and Kathleen Clarke. Joseph had an incredible work ethic and became extremely successful in the office supplies industry. He ensured his three children never wanted for anything and the young Mary wore mink coats, drove zippy cars and mingled with famous neighbours such as Spencer Tracy. The family spent weekends in a seaside holiday home. But tempered by an encounter with poverty during his youth, Joseph encouraged his daughter to help with schemes sending medical supplies to poor countries.

In her late teens Mary married for the first time. The marriage ended hastily, on account of her husband’s gambling addiction. He frittered away most of her father’s wealth and for a time she was strapped for cash. But thankfully she had also inherited her father’s business acumen. She took over the running of his office supplies business and made it a great financial success again. Her cushioned life in Beverly Hills was secure.

A second marriage to Carl Brenner lasted for 25 years. During her first and second marriages she had eight children, one of whom died.

But while Mary and Carl Brenner had a high status, they were not immune to marital discord. In 1965, after Mary fled the wreckage of her second marriage, a great friend of hers, Mgr Anthony Brouwers led her into La Mesa prison. It was a concrete fortress, a stronghold for murderers, rapists, gang members and hit men. The drug moguls reigned supreme and enjoyed decent living conditions, while the small fry criminals lived in filth, rats and raw sewage around their feet. The plight of the prisoners shook her to her marrow.

She gave away the majority of her possessions and snazzy clothes. When her older children were able to fend for themselves and when her youngest son, Anthony, became a self-sufficient teen, she gave custody of him to her ex-husband. It was then, in 1977, that she moved into a clammy cell in the women’s section of La Mesa. At the time, there were 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners.  Her cell had an old cot, a Spanish dictionary and a Bible. She donned a homemade smock and headdress, her first habit.

No longer did she have Mgr Anthony as her guide. He had died, ravaged by cancer, but she renamed herself in his memory.

Mother Antonia’s first role was providing basic amenities, such as soap, toothpaste and aspirin. Using her entrepreneurial talent, she ran a scheme to sell lemonade to prisoners, using the profits to pay the bail for small-time offenders. Like Tobit in the Old Testament, she prepared the deceased prisoners for burial. She also strong-armed doctors and dentists to treat the prisoners for free.

She became more assertive in confronting the irregularities of the Mexican legal system. She escorted prisoners to court, and challenged judges as to why they gave lenient sentences to the rich and harsh ones to the poor.

Not every judge changed, but one holds that it was Mother Antonia’s sharp questions that brought him to his senses, and he stopped applying one law for the rich and another for the poor.
Under her motherly gaze, conditions in La Mesa vastly improved. In time, the prisoners had beds, lavatories and enough to eat. “I live in prison,” she once reflected,” and I have not had a day of depression in 25 years.”

Being a divorcée, Mary Brenner was not accepted in any of the existing religious orders, so she saw an opening to found one that welcomed older women and women from less-than-lily-white situations. In 1997, she founded the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.

Referring to herself as “God’s mop”, she explained that getting a prisoner to see the good in themselves was like “a cleaning”.  It was her tireless quest and greatest achievement that she convinced countless prisoners that they were better than a life of crime.

By the myriad hours that she spent as their counsellor, she restored their dignity and self-respect. Her great sacrifice in leaving behind a sumptuous life impressed upon the prisoners that she had chosen to be with them, as opposed to brushing shoulders with film stars or going to cocktail parties.

Did the Mexican prisoners or the guards resent this smiling America nun from a moneyed background? After all, she had a choice in being there. Their loyalty to her was tested during a prison riot, when prisoners sought to take control of La Mesa while guards battled them. Bullets ripped through the air, and the air was murky with tear gas.

She walked into the rebellion, and immediately the guns fell silent. No one wanted to harm the feisty nun they called “the Prison Angel”.  

Mother Antonia died on October 17 at the headquarters of the Eudist Sisters of the 11th Hour. She was the subject of a book, The Prison Angel, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.

This article appears in the November 1st edition of The Catholic Herald.  

3 comments:

  1. I love this story Mary but sometimes think it might be harder to stay with ones husband, children a& grandchildren! There are a number of inspiring women who at age 40/50 or beyond kind of started another vocation - I wonder who would have me!

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  2. Hi Jackie, Thanks for your comment.
    While I commend Mother Antonia's prison ministry, I wonder how her children turned out. Personally, were I a mother, my children would come first, and I could not see myself going to live in a prison, so far away from my kids, and not being able to be at their side in their times of trouble. But, I'll have to read all of the book written about Mother Antonia, The Prison Angel (I have not completed the book) and then see if her biological children suffered. Her children may have done very well, simultaneous to her doing great work in the prison, that would have been the best outcome.

    God bless always,

    Mary

    and will be posting again with more

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  3. Hi Mary
    I am an associate of the Eudist Servants of the eleventh hour, and I am happy to tell you that her children turned out to be upstanding adults. She remained very close to her children until she passed.
    Kindest Regards
    Rich Davis

    ReplyDelete

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