Writing this blog today is a real treat for me because whilst most of us have grown up hearing about the victorious acts of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, discovering new victorious acts by a freedom fighter many of us haven’t ever heard of and whose very life stirs my soul is a joyous and exciting moment. I had planned to write about Martin Luther King as my next freedom fighter. I think I wanted to bring out the big guns! But when I was in South Africa someone told me about this little old nun who changed lives and changed institutions just by being herself, by showing love and by caring for those whom no one else cared for. Mother Antonia Brenner chose to live in one of the most dangerous prisons for 30 years and in that time she changed the lives of both inmates, guards and their families as well as taking on the legal system and issues of human rights regarding inmates. By showing these men and women the love of Christ she literally changed part of our world. Psalm 79 v 11:
Let the groans of the prisoners reach you; according to your great power, preserve those condemned to die
It doesn’t say that they need to be wrongfully incarcerated prisoners to be heard by God, it just says “prisoners” because God loves prisoners of any kind just as much as He loves any one of us. Mother Antonia new this and felt called to help and serve but her later life serving as a nun was very different to her early life. She was raised in an affluent family in Beverly Hills and had a very privileged lifestyle. However her family were always involved in charity work and she was encouraged to support charities, sending medical supplies around the world from a young age. As her children got older she got more and more involved with reaching out and helping the poor. Then she met a priest called Anthony Browers who took her to a notoriously violent prison in Tijuana, Mexico called La Mesa. La Mesa is home to some of the most dangerous criminals, including gang leaders, murderers and rapists. The living conditions at the time were unimaginable with no beds or even toilet paper, with inmates living amongst raw sewage and being presided over by the drug lords. The guards were not much better, ill treating unwell inmates and dispensing cruel abuse. After her visit with Anthony Browers she found herself unable to stop thinking about the plight of the inmates and their terrible conditions so she started making regular visits to La Mesa.
Once her children had grown up and moved away, naming one boy who remained living with his father, she divorced from an unhappy marriage and moved from Beverly Hills to San Diego so that she was closer to the prison for commuting. She has said in an interview that she was a “basket case” at this time, struggling to leave a child and family behind whilst feeling called by God to do the work He intended for her in Mexico. Despite this difficult time of for her and her family she maintained good relationships with her children and they were regular visitors to her at La Mesa throughout her time there.
She started out by taking medical supplies to the prison along with blankets and toiletries but later got a prison contract so that she could sell soft drinks to inmates. With the money she made from this she would bail out the more petty criminals. Everything she did had a purpose and acccording to many everything she did, she did with a smile. Not long after these initial visits to La Mesa Mother Anothia was allowed to take private orders (as a divorcee she wasn’t technically allowed to become a nun), made her own habit and moved into a prison cell 10ft by 10ft in the ladies prison quarters. She lived in this cell with her bible and Spanish dictionary for 30 years.
“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them” Mother Antonia
She took care of the prisoners when they were sick, she took care of them when they were stabbed or wounded, she took care of them when they died and she prepared them for burial. She loved them and they loved her back. In the midst of one very bad riot with shots being fired and tear gas being dispensed, she begged the guards to let her in so she could speak to the prisoners. She said they would stop if she could speak to them. When she walked through the doors and the prisoners saw her they immediately stopped and the riot ended, such was her deep and loving relationship with them. Many inmates have testified that they transformed their lives since leaving prison because of Mother Antonia and have not going back to crime.
She managed to get doctors and nurses to provide medical assistance in the prison, she rescued toilets and made sure they were installed, she attended court hearings to see fair sentences were being given and she got local bakeries to supply the prison with bread to provide better provisions for the inmates. She made relationships with both the inmates and guards and also their families. She spent time with them and prayed with them and managed to get offenders to acknowledge their wrongdoings and embrace a new way of life.
Such was her great work that a year after moving into the prison that both the Bishop of Tijuana and the Bishop of San Diego welcomed her officially as a nun and gave her their blessing. Equally when Pope John Paul ll heard about her work he also gave her his blessing. Mother Antonia then went on to found a new order called the Eleventh Hour which was an order for widows and both single and divorced women who served the poor. Many of these women had previously been turned away by their own religious communities but because of their work with Mother Antonia were formally accepted by the Bishop of Tijuana. Mother Antonia also bought a house near to the prison to serve as a shelter for the women inmates when they left prison and also as a place where families could stay when coming to the prison to visit inmates.
Mother Antonia not only fought for the rights of the inmates and she not only provided them with a better quality of life but she treated them like people not animals and she brought unity to a place of brokenness and pain. A community came together to start helping the prison and all because Mother Antonia showed love to those who many people thought weren’t worth loving. She set people free not only from the prison but she also set them free from the chains of their lives.
Words of Mother Antonia
There is no one so ugly he does not have beauty within him; no one so weak he does not have great strength and no one so poor he is not endowed with richness. Each person is of invaluable worth.
I’ve lived what most people call the good life. I was happy, but deep inside I always felt that, given the short amount of time we are given to live and love in this world, we spend too much time loving things instead of people.