As a radio and television reporter during the 1980s and 1990s in Southern California, I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of interesting people in all possible situations, from tragedy to triumph. There is one woman who holds a special place in my memory and in my heart. He is, to borrow a phrase from Reader’s Digest, my most memorable character. Her name is Mother Antonia Brenner. Next week will mark the tenth anniversary of his death at the age of 86.
I am often assigned to cover stories in Tijuana because I speak Spanish and, frankly, I usually find these assignments more interesting, if challenging, than those in San Diego. I always received help from the Tijuana press, always generous in sharing information with the güera gringa reporter from San Diego. I started hearing about La Mama, the American nun who lives inside La Mesa State Penitentiary in Tijuana. Got my attention. You can’t do this thing.
I learned that she was born Mary Clarke, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She is a blue-eyed beauty who grew up in a mansion in Beverly Hills. He was married twice and had seven children, but both marriages ended in divorce. She is not your typical nun.
Mother Antonia’s story inspired me to make a documentary, La Mama: An American Nun’s Life in a Mexican Prison.
Always a devout Catholic, he began helping prisoners and their families in La Mesa in the 1970s. Her children grew up and she eventually built a following of women like her who had grown older, started families, enjoyed careers, and now wanted to serve. Appropriately, they call themselves the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, an order founded in 2003.
Standing 5 feet tall, La Mama often moves freely around the prison, hugging the inmates she calls her children. Immaculate in his white hat and habit, speaking in his unique style of Spanish, he was never in danger. The prison warden told me that La Mama brought people inside the prison walls. In an interview in 2005, Mother Antonia told me: “A person who has been wounded in his dignity sometimes walks his whole life without recovery. That’s why I’m here”.
Mother Antonia is very smart and knows that she has to accept some truths about life inside The Table in order to gain access. He always knew that no prison in America would allow him to live within the walls of a prison. Their “children” include the lowest street criminal who sleeps on the floor or the most powerful drug dealer, who lives a relatively comfortable life within prison walls with his own apartment and security guards. Mother Antonia lived in a 10-by-10-foot room with a bed. To be clear, he can come and go from prison whenever he wants.
Mother Antonia is also a devoted supporter of the police. In 2000, Tijuana’s municipal police chief was killed by a volley of gunfire while driving down a busy Tijuana avenue. Mother Antonia ran to the police headquarters carrying a bunch of red roses for her fallen son, giving comfort to his grieving siblings. His command supports the families of fallen officers, and there are many.
Mother Antonia also knows that she has political influence in a city with many rival factions. I was there when he received a personal invitation to attend a political banquet, where he was expected to sit at the head table next to an elected official. He knew he was being used and did not attend.
As spiritual and inspiring as Mother Antonia, she has a great sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and a deep, unforgettable voice that any stage actress would envy. She used to be a society matron.
Mother Antonia caught the attention of none other than the late Father Joe Carroll, who began hearing complaints about a Tijuana nun who appeared in St. Vincent de Paul building in San Diego and is taking donations. As Father Joe told me in 2007: “I ran to stop him. I will finish it. He knelt down and looked up with that innocent happy smile. ‘Father, your blessing.’ Then this little old lady stopped me, in the middle of stopping her, to give her a blessing. Meanwhile, they took the things from the door. He’s a thief and he’s good at it! High praise from the man affectionately known as the “hustler priest.”
An annual fundraiser for the order will be held this Saturday in Solana Beach. Ten years after the death of Mama Antonia, there are 12 sisters and 22 companions in her order, serving in Tijuana and in many states of the United States. They are supported primarily by donations from generous San Diegans.
A campaign was also prepared to nominate Mother Antonia for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. He is an unforgettable character, serving a life sentence, by his own choice.
Hammond is a freelance journalist and filmmaker living in Encinitas.