SAN DIEGO — Antonia Brenner, an American nun who was raised in Beverly Hills and abandoned a life of privilege to live in a notorious Mexican prison, has died at the age of 86.
Brenner died Thursday at the Tijuana convent of Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, which she founded, said Sister Anne Marie Maxfield.
Brenner had been ill with a weak heart and myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular condition.
Brenner first visited La Mesa State Penitentiary in 1965 on a trip to provide medicine and supplies to hospitals in Tijuana, just across the U.S. border from San Diego.
She moved into the prison 12 years later when she was 50, holding individual counseling sessions, leading pep rallies at the prison church, and doing countless small tasks for inmates over decades.
Known as “Prison Angel,” she lived in a cell with a view of the guard tower. Located at the end of the dark hallway, it barely had room for a cot, desk and folding chair.
She moved out in her final years as her health declined but remained a regular presence at the prison and a beloved figure among Tijuana’s powerful and powerless until she died.
Brenner was born Mary Clarke in Los Angeles, the second of three children. Her father made a fortune selling office supplies to defense contractors during World War II. The family lived in Beverly Hills and had an 11-bedroom, ocean-view summer home in Laguna Beach, south of Los Angeles. Later, she moved to Ventura County, her last home before the prison.
After two failed marriages, Brenner immersed herself in charity work and was deeply influenced by a Los Angeles priest named Anthony Brouwers. When she became a nun in 1977 — 13 years after Brouwers died — she named herself Sister Antonia in his honor.
Brenner didn’t hesitate to intervene in thorny conflicts at the prison, which is marred by a history of violent clashes, including one in 2008 that left about two dozen inmates dead.
“I’m effective in riots because I’m not afraid, I just pray and walk into it,” she told The Associated Press in 2005. “A woman in a white veil walks in, someone they know loves them. So silence comes, explanation comes and arms go down.”
Brenner also counseled and supported prison guards and police, creating Brazos Abiertos, or Open Arms, a group that provides financial support and holiday meals to families of slain Tijuana police officers.
Alberto Licona, Tijuana’s deputy police director and president of Brazos Abiertos, said Brenner founded the group in 1997 after an inmate confided with her about killing a police officer and she sought to help the victim’s family.
Her biggest legacy is with the murderers, drug smugglers, thieves and other convicts at La Mesa. She brought bandages, soap and medicine and left with messages to their loved ones.
In 2007, the city renamed a street for her adjacent to the prison.
“Even when her health was in decline, she always found time to attend to them,” Licona said.