Mary Clarke was born into privilege. Her parents, Irish immigrants, had built a comfortable life in Beverly Hills, and counted movie stars Cary Grant, William Powell, and Hedy Lamarr as their neighbors. But Mary was also taught that to whom much is given much is expected. The Clarke family was regularly involved in service to the poor, both at home and abroad, and this formation planted seeds that would bloom in very unexpected ways for their daughter.
For the first half of her life, Mary was busy raising eight children. She also suffered through two divorces. But in 1969, she had a dream. In it, she was a prisoner at Calvary, awaiting execution when she was visited by Jesus. He offered to take her place, but she refused. The dream awakened a religious calling in her, but at that time there were no religious orders for middle-aged, twice divorced women. This of course did not stop her charitable service in southern California, and also increasingly south of the border.
In the early 1970’s Clarke moved to San Diego so that she could be closer to the work she’d been introduced to by a priest friend—delivering donations to inmates at the maximum security prison in Tijuana named La Mesa. And when her children were finally self-sufficient, she took the leap of faith, sold her home and her father’s business that she’d been running, and headed for Tijuana, Mexico—to La Mesa—to eventually become Mother Antonia.
And as surprising as this calling seemed—a middle-aged, wealthy white woman from Southern California moving to Tijuana, Mexico to serve in a prison filled with male gang leaders, drug dealers, rapists and murderers—equally strange was the fact that Clarke received permission to do it! She took private vows and moved into the overcrowded 8,000 inmate prison, and a 10×10 cell, so that she could be close to her flock. There, she ate the same food as the prisoners, and even lined up for roll call with them every morning. Within a year she had the official blessing of both the Bishop of Tijuana and the Bishop of San Diego.
Each day she would meet with the inmates, the guards, and their families—to pray with them, listen to them, and offer counsel. She joyfully chased down material supplies the inmates needed, brought in doctors and dentists from California, advocated for better conditions, and once even negotiated peace during a prison riot. She hated the crimes, but loved the criminals. The guards called her the “prison angel”, and the inmates called her “Mama.” And her ministry grew to the point that in 1997 she received permission from the bishop to found a religious order, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour—an order for mature women, ages 46-65, who had a love for Jesus and the poor, and could be self-supporting.
Mother Antonia never left her home in La Mesa prison, and died there at 86 years-old, surrounded by her sisters, and the prisoners who loved her. She was fond of saying, “Everything you do either adds to the beauty of the world or takes away from it.” She saw the potential for beauty, she nurtured beauty, and along the way she became beauty.
Mother Antonia Brenner is a hero you should know.