Dungeon Prompts this week asked us to sing the praises of someone who is a superhero to us. The instructions were:
We all have heroes that we look up to for some reason or another. We may not want to follow in their footsteps, but there is something about these people that make them bigger than life to us. They may not be perfect individuals; they may not even be real people at all. Whether it is a story book figure, a comic character, a celebrity, someone doing good in the world, friend, family or otherwise, this week let’s take the time to sing the praises of one of our heroes.
Last year, I discovered someone whom became a superhero to me. Mother Antonia Brenner was born on December 1, 1926 and died on October 17, 2013. I learned of her when I read her obituary in Time magazine.
The obituary mentioned a book about her life, The Prison Angel, written by Pulitzer Prize journalists Mary Jordan & Kevin Sullivan. I devoured that book, completely in awe. What an incredible woman she was.
While I can’t even begin to do justice to her life’s story, I will give some of the highlights. Mother Antonio, whose birth name was Mary Clarke, was born into an affluent Beverly Hills family. She was married and divorced twice and raised seven children. She was a devout Catholic, although she did not agree with all of the rules of the church. After her divorce, she continued to go to church even though she was prohibited from taking communion until her second marriage ended (because the church would not recognize her first divorce).
During her second marriage, Mary became very active in charity work. She primarily worked to obtain supplies for people in countries that needed it, such as Korea. In 1965, a priest from Pasadena took her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana. She found the conditions in the Mexican prison to be deplorable. While she was there, she saw the F tank, which was a pen that had only a partial roof. This was where the violent mentally ill were housed. The toilet was simply a corner of the pen where human waste piled up. She began working with the La Mesa prisoners regularly, bringing truckloads of supplies with her. Over the years, she felt an ever stronger pull to be at the prison full time.
When her children were old enough, she decided she wanted to work at the prison as a nun. Her family supported her in seeking that vocation. She was turned down by the established orders because she was too old (35 years was the cut off) and because she was divorced. Mary believed those church rules needed to change.
She decided her prison work would be more effective if she was a nun even though she didn’t have the church’s sanction. She made a nun’s habit for herself, chose the name she wanted (Mother Antonia), gave away all of her possessions, and made private vows of obedience, chastity, and fidelity. She then went to La Mesa penitentiary and told the warden she was going to stay. He was delighted to have her.
She was offered a private room in the prison but insisted on staying in the women’s cell block, a room with many bunk beds, each structure having three bunks. Mother Antonia took one of the middle bunks. She stayed in that block for months until the warden gave her a 10 foot by 10 foot cell of her own. There was not even a toilet in the cell.
For the first year, Mother Antonia spent part of the week in California and part in Mexico. After that she worked in the prison full time. The prison became her home, and stayed her home for decades. She served the inmates and the guards in any way that she could.
There was a lot of violence in the prison and she would often step in-between the guards and the prisoners and calm them both down. One of the things she said to a guard who was beating a prisoner was “Don’t forget that is Christ you have in your hands.” She is even credited with stopping a serious prison riot.
She soon became aware that the only comforts in the prison were for prisoners who had money. There was scarcity of food, clothes and medicine for anyone else. She renewed her practice of obtaining supplies for those who needed them. She was expert in getting people to donate. One priest commented that when you look into her eyes, the word “No” disappears from your vocabulary.
Over the years, she obtained a large number of supplies from Father Joe Carroll who started Father Joe’s Villages which provides food, shelter, clothing, health care and counseling to the poor and homeless in San Diego. Father Joe is known as the “Hustler Priest” due to his ability to procure donations. He believed Mother Antonia was an even better hustler than he was! He went on to say, “You give to her because you’re just happy you can do something for her. You walk away with more than you gave. You just feel like you’ve touched God a bit.”
About a year after she had made herself a nun, Mother Antonia decided it was time to face the church. She chose to plead her case with Bishop Juan Jesus Posadas Ocamgo from Tijuana and Bishop Leo T. Maher from San Diego. Bishop Posadas gave her his blessing and asked that she become part of the Mercedarians, an 800 year-old order of priests who serve prisoners.
When she talked to Bishop Maher his response was “What I want to know Sister Antonia, is what can I do for you? How can I serve you?” (In the U.S. nuns are called Sister. In Mexico they are called Mother. That is why Bishop Maher addressed her as Sister Antonia.) She asked for his blessing and approval. He gave her that and more. He made her his auxillary and said if anyone objected to her new status to send them to him. So, at fifty years of age, she was now officially a nun!
Mother Antonia wasn’t immediately able to make all the changes she wanted to see in the prison. She worked tirelessly towards her goals no matter how long it took to make them reality. An example was the practice of Gritto. When new prisoners came to the prison, they were subjected to the Gritto, a gauntlet that consisted of two lines of prison guards. The prisoners had to walk down the middle of the gauntlet, not once, but three times, so that every shift of guards had their chance with them. The prisoners were expected to loudly say their name and crime as well as answer any questions put to them as they walked the gauntlet. They were sometimes punched in the process. It was meant to be an experience of humiliation and was sometimes an experience of physical pain as well. While Mother Antonia tried to stop the Gritto from the beginning, she wasn’t allowed to even see it until 1981. At that point, she tricked the prison officials into agreeing to let her see it once and then continued coming. Soon she joined the prisoners as they walked the gauntlet. The process changed some as a result, but it didn’t end until 2003.
Other women started seeking out Mother Antonia, wanting to join her mission. In 2003, with the blessing of the Bishops she started a new order of nuns, which was called Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.
The Prison Angel is filled with stories of Mother Antonia’s interactions with both prisoners and guards. As I said earlier, there is no way for me to do her story justice with this short post. I hope I have heightened your interest enough that you will read the book.
I will leave you with her summary of her philosophy and a prayer/poem she wrote:
Mother Antonia’s Philosophy
“Live within the day. Forget about yesterday; it’s over. Take everything bad and negative, and toss it away. Learn to step out from what is holding you back. To hate people will not change anything; to love them will.”
The Servant’s Prayer
by Mother Antonia
Good Morning Dear Lord,
Thank you for the precious gift
You have given me this morning
-my life- to live fully and joyfully
one more day!
Please give me the
grace to be kind and patient today
that I may see beyond worldly
appearances, so that I may
encounter your holy presence
in each person I meet.
Close my ears dear Father to all
gossip. Seal my lips to all
judgments and criticisms that my
words will only bless all about
me and warm the coldest heart.
Let my actions be so just, my
feelings be so tender, my conduct
be so humble and true to
your will that throughout this
day I will be a reflection of
your heavenly mercy and love.