Sister Antonia Brenner, a one-time Beverly Hills resident who found her calling ministering to the inmates of one of Mexico’s most violent and overcrowded prisons, has died.
The diminutive, twice-divorced mother of seven spent more than three decades at Tijuana’s notorious La Mesa Penitentiary, making her home in a 10-by-10 cell. She offered inmates everything from blankets to medicine to bail money. She led prayers and washed the dead for burial. They called her La Madre Antonia, or Mother Antonia. She said they were mis hijos, her children.
“She treated the inmates like they were her own sons and daughters,” said friend Merrel Olesen, a La Jolla plastic surgeon who donated his reconstructive surgical skills to the La Mesa prisoners for more than a decade and helped support Sister Antonia’s work for 30 years. “I would do the surgical procedure. My wife, Marie, would hand me the instruments. And when we were done, the prisoner would jump off the table and hug Mother Antonia.
“She had the ability to make everyone around her feel better. If there is ever a woman who deserves to be a saint, it’s this lady.”
Sister Antonia, who had a weak heart and myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder, died Thursday at the Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour convent in Tijuana. She was 86.
With her small frame, sunny disposition, and heavily accented Spanish, she delved fearlessly into a world riddled with poverty and violence, once quelling a riot by walking into the darkened penitentiary taken over by armed and angry inmates.
She urged guards to respect the petty thieves, rapists, murderers and drug traffickers in their custody, speaking out against beatings and torture of inmates. But she also reached out to those in law enforcement, raising funds for the families of those killed in the line of duty.
“I think prison freed me,” she once said in an interview.
The penitentiary she called home was marked by a prison village system with its own food stalls, drug dealers, and small apartments for prisoners with money, but brutal conditions for those who could not afford to pay for privileges. The facility came to symbolize the lawlessness and corruption that plagues many of Mexico’s prisons. Sister Antonia stayed on at the prison after the village, dubbed El Pueblito, was shut down.
Sister Antonia took her vows at 50, after her second marriage was over and her children were grown. Too old to join a religious order, she made a private pact with God, moving to the prison in March 1977….
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