Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sister Antonia Brenner, 1926-2013


Sister Antonia dies at 86

Sister Antonia caring for a prisoner in La Mesa in 2002

Once again, someone remarkable has died whose life was insufficiently celebrated while she was alive. I had never heard of Antonia Brenner until yesterday. I wish I had.

Mary Clarke was born on Dec. 1, 1926—we share a birthday!— the second of three children. Her father, Joseph, was a prosperous business executive; the family had a second home overlooking the Pacific. After her second marriage, to Carl Brenner, she was known as Mary Brenner, and was the mother of eight children, comfortably ensconced in Beverly Hills.  While struggling through her second divorce, she began doing charity work for the poor in Los Angeles.  A priest friend, Monsignor Anthony Brouwers, took  her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico, which was filled with convicted murderers, thieves, gang members, rapists and other hardened criminals, all living in brutal and inhumane  conditions even by the horrible standards of U.S. prisons. Everything—her life, her name, and most of all, the existence of the prisoners, changed after that.

She became devoted to their plight as human beings, and brought the prisoners basics of comfort that were being withheld from them, at her own expense. She gave them aspirin, blankets, tooth paste, soap, even prescription eyeglasses. She carried spare toilet paper with her, and kep a lookout for other missing essentials. Brenner acquired a prison contract to sell soda pop to prisoners and then used the proceeds to post bail for minor offenders. She began spending more and more time with the prisoners, gaining their affection and trust, even singing in their church services. She treated them with dignity and kindness: when prisoners died, it was Mary Brenner who prepared him for burial.

Eventually, at the age of 50, she abandoned her old life completely, becoming a Roman Catholic nun and moving her few earthly belongings (she gave away her expensive clothes and almost everything else)  into a small, 10 x 10 foot cell in the women’s section of the La Mesa, where she could be close to her charges, a group that gradually expanded to include wardens, guards, staff, and their families. Calling herself Sister Antonia, she founded the Eudist Servants of the 11th an order for women like her, older single, divorced or widowed women who wanted to help the poor. When she left the prison, it was usually to raise money for the prisoners’ needs.

The New York Times obituary for Sister Antonia relates how she once purposefully walked into the middle of a prison riot with tear gas in the air and gunfire around her. As soon as she appeared, the fighting stopped. Nobody wanted to risk losing the woman known as “The Prison Angel.” It was not the only time she broke up fights and ended violence at the prison. Antonia’s work drew accolades from around the world, including  Mexico President Vicente Fox and President Ronald Reagan.

In a 2002 interview, she told the Washington Post why she decided to live with the inmates. “It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she said. “I have to be here with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has an appendix [attack], in case someone dies.” Asked about her sacrifices and whether she was happy—her dedication to the prison had limited her contact with her children—she replied, “Pleasure depends on where you are, who you are with, what you are eating. Happiness is different. Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years. I have been upset, angry. I have been sad. But never depressed. I have a reason for my being.”

She was 86 when she died last week.

The truly altruistic among us are special models of our species; it is difficult for most of us to emulate them, but they can inspire us to be better, and we must always be grateful they are here, as well as awe-struck regarding their selfless deeds. Mother Antonia is an indispensable addition to the Ethics Alarms Ethics Heroes Hall of Honor.


Facts: New York Times, LA Times

Graphic: LA Times

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

7 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sister Antonia Brenner, 1926-2013

  1. I’ll admit it’s hard to swallow walking away from her children, even if they were grown- but hopefully they all understood the phenominal good that their mother was able to accomplish. I can’t fathom moving to Mexico at all, let alone deliberately moving into Mexican Prison and then stopping a riot by virtue of walking straight into it.

    • Luke, according to the obituary, she did not “walk away” from her children; all but the youngest were grown, she gave their father primary custody, and she continued to see them regularly throughout her life.

      What an amazing woman, to truly minister to “the least of these”.

  2. Wow. I’m sure there are some cross-currents, there always are – but they pale into insignificance in the face of a life lived this well.

  3. “[B]eing withheld”, an act of commission, is significantly different from “not supplying”, an act (non-act) of omission. It sounds as though the latter was the case.

    It also sounds as though Sister Antonia Brenner became a beguine rather than a nun (there are a few technical differences).

  4. my heart is broken … I have no words to describe the deep sadness that I am feeling right now … Mother Antonia was a dear dear friend of my family, a second mother to my father, an angel who walked amongst us who did not deserve her love and kindness. I still remember talking to her over the phone earlier this year and hearing her voice made me tear up … God has taken a TRUE ANGEL back to her home. I will miss you, Mother Antonia. May I be as humble, loyal, and true soldier of God as you have taught me to be. God Bless you and may you rest in peace knowing you will forever be missed and loved.

    • Wow amazing you actually met her!one of God’s followers a true angel what a beautiful thing how amazing May God bless you through your life and you may one day be with her in heaven singing with the Angels with God in your heart God bless you once again!!!😂😭😪😋😇😇😇😇😇

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.