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Called to serve (05/14/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns
"People can take your life without your permission, but they can't take your dignity unless you give it to them." - Mother Antonio

We are all heroes of our own story. Neither gender, societal status, nor race are significant when it comes to ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Written by winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, "The Prison Angel" conveys the unbelievable life story of Mary Clarke Brenner, a true servant of God.

A real life guardian angel, originally from a wealthy Catholic family from California, Mary Clarke Brenner didn't just happen to walk away at the age of 50, from a privileged life and the seven grown children she had raised, to live in a dank and squalid cell in hostile La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. A beautiful, blonde, twice-divorced mother, Mary became self-proclaimed Mother Antonio, dedicated to the needs of a depressed society.

In March 1977, having sewn her own habit, which she felt was an important symbol of her faith, the courageous mother of mercy walked through the prison gates carrying a blanket, a pillow, a Spanish dictionary, and a Bible, pledging to serve the needs of the prisoners of La Mesa. She didn't have the church's formal approval to act as a nun, but she would never put rules ahead of faith. She believed that God had chosen this life for her.

Though her family feared for her safety, they were not surprised that their mother set out on such a dangerous mission. They knew early on that this was her calling. As children, they had joined in their mother's obsession to solicit and gather donations of food, clothing, and anything needed by the poor and deprived, their garage continuously piled high with boxes of things to distribute. She once stated, "Charity is not a thing you do," she says. "It's love. It's who you become. I was a salesman for the poor." A friend, Father Joe Carrol, said she was the perfect street hustler, collecting items from all over San Diego. She never slowed down.

Often risking her life during prison riots and with gunshots flying, she calls the inmates her "beloved hijos" (sons.) In time, both the prisoners and the guards came to respect this gutsy, determined lady who comforted, nursed, provided for their needs, and prayed for them. In time, she persuaded prison guards to treat the prisoners humanely. She brought her message of nonviolence to police stations: "Help me to remember that there is no justice without mercy."

Spending money she received from selling her home, business, and possessions, Mother Antonio did a great deal toward cosmetic healing for the self esteem of individuals who felt worthless and prejudiced against due to their skin deformities, unsightly tattoos, cleft lips, and bad teeth.

No one could turn down her requests. For nine years, throughout the 1980s, a friend, Dr. Merrel Olesen, and his wife Marie performed over 1,000 surgeries free of charge in La Mesa, finally burning out. Many prisoners grew up without running water or toothbrushes. A small army of dentists donated their labor to fix teeth while Mother Antonio paid for laboratory costs.

Some prisoners landed in prison merely because they committed the slightest of crimes, like stealing food to eat. There for months awaiting trial because their families didn't have bail money, the angel of mercy paid the fines of thousands of men and women held in prison and represented others in court.

After 15 years of serving humanity from a horrendous prison cell, with no ecclesiastical support from the Catholic Church, she felt it was time to make her role official. Mexican Bishop Juan Ocampo admired her work and gave her his official blessing (and a new habit.) The wealthy, twice-divorced mother of seven then went to Bishop Maher of San Diego, who asked how he could serve her. He told her to send the doubters to him as he proceeded to appoint her an auxiliary to the bishop.

Now 80 years old, Mother Antonio still resides in her prison cell, with the poorest of the poor, alongside drug lords, rapists, and murderers, her "hijos," in a tiny cell with no heat or hot water"¦but with enough love and compassion to warm the hearts of the oppressed of an entire country.

Father Carroll reflected, "She wasn't asking for anything but permission to give her life to God, and to do it through service to the poor of Mexico. She did it the right way, but it's a way that most bishops in the modern church would never allow."

Mother Antonio has often remarked that she'd never been depressed or regretful, because she has a reason for being. Fortunately for everyone whose lives she's touched, Mother Antonio didn't, as she has said, "put rules ahead of faith."

Janet Burns has lived in Lewiston all her life. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com.



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