“I think prison freed me…” Mother Antonia Brenner RIP

Over at Deacon Greg’s place he notes a study and asks Is being a Good Samaritan a Matter of Genetics?

Or grace, or a combination of the two? Perhaps specifically-graced-genetics?

This seems a timely question in light of the passing of the fascinating Mother Antonia Brenner (born Mary Clark), foundress of Eudist Servants Of The Eleventh Hour and one of those formidable “Irish Catholic” women so many of us have known and loved. She is survived by her seven children.

Mother Antonia Brenner/David Maung

The diminutive, twice-divorced mother of seven spent more than three decades at Tijuana’s notorious La Mesa Penitentiary, making her home in a 10-foot-by-10-foot cell. She offered inmates everything from blankets to medicine to bail money. She led prayers and washed the dead for burial. La Madre Antonia, they called her, and she said they were mis hijos, her children. . . She was 86.

With her small frame, sunny disposition, and heavily accented Spanish, she delved fearlessly into a world riddled with poverty and violence, once quelling a riot by walking into the darkened penitentiary taken over by armed and angry inmates.

She urged guards to respect the petty thieves, rapists, murderers and drug traffickers in their custody, speaking out against beatings and torture of inmates. But she also reached out to those in law enforcement, raising funds for the families of those killed in the line of duty.

“I think prison freed me,” she once said in an interview.

So, her second marriage ended**, her children grown, she went where the Holy Spirit led her — moved herself right into an unheated, cold-water Tijuana prison — and perhaps became her most authentic self.

This is dynamic Christianity; the willingness to “take on the smell of the sheep” as Pope Francis has urged his bishops. This is how real, lived evangelization explains for many what Pope Francis meant when he eschewed the “solemn nonsense” of proselytizing.

May she rest in peace, and may her order, comprised of mature women with “late” vocations increase.

I like this video of Mother Antonia, advising us — as Pope Francis has, quite a lot, these past seven months — on the evils of gossip, “how delighted evil is when we talk against each other!” I love especially that she brings up the Saint Philip Neri story:

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And more here: “Who am I to forgive; God is the one to forgive. God to God. But know what you’ve done.” Again, she more or less explains Pope Francis’, “who am I to judge?”

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**I know some will ask how a twice-divorced woman can be a religious. Yes, of course this is possible. I can find no information as to possible annulments, but she married her second husband (in Las Vegas) as soon as the first divorce came through, so let’s assume she did not get an annulment. Without it, her second marriage would never have been valid within the church, and post-divorce could literally have been dealt with in the confessional. Without an annulment, she would still be considered sacramentally wed to her first husband, until he died, which for all I know, he did by middle age.

Next year, Pope Francis will be looking at issues of marriage and family, and many are wondering if the church will open up the Eucharist to divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment. It will be interesting to see how that goes.

I’ve always been of two minds about it. On one hand, I think annulments get a bad rap, because there is a potential for real healing, real instruction and self-understanding available through it. And I certainly don’t think we can address divorce lightly, or shrug it off; Christ himself emphasized against it, and when we become a church that stops giving precedence to his teachings, we’re screwed.

But on the other hand, things are not always black and white. There has to be some way to broaden mercy — to acknowledge and serve the wideness of God’s mercy — in dealing with our divorced members. Perhaps Mother Antonia will be a patron of that discussion!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • DeaconsBench

    A couple years ago, my parish hosted the Mass of Thanksgiving for a newly ordained priest who was also twice-divorced—and who had undergone two annulments, too. He was in his mid-60s, with grown children. Nothing is impossible with God.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Is being a good samaratan a matter of gentics?”
    Hogwash. That would mean we are deterministic and have no free will. I think it would be akin to the Calvinist predestination, though i’m no theologian. I recall being a less than good Samaratan at different intervals in my life. Genetics can’t explain that.
    The good mother seems like an interesting person. I personally don’t see the relationship with being religious and being divorced. Why can’t one be both?

  • jenny

    I got a lot of healing through my annulment ….unfortunately, I learned more about marriage after my divorce.

  • Nan

    Thank you for that. I see a guy at Mass all the time who reminds me of this other guy I used to see at Mass all the time…then the next time I saw him he was in the procession carrying the crucifix when the Archbishop was there, together with a pack of other seminarians. I once asked the recent guy if he’d ever talked to the Vocations director and he said he’s divorced but maybe would be a deacon at some point. He just seems like a priest.

  • http://hjg.com.ar/ Hernán J. González

    I didn’t know Mother Antonia, thanks. That video about gossip is pretty spot on. I’ve also liked this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6dP55ZAfUM

  • Victor

    There’s so much that I want to say here but instead, every time you look at the sky and you see a cloud, make believe that God’s Angels are taking inventory and clouds are “The Lamb of God”! Yes many will laugh YA out of town, but remember that GOD (Good Old Dad) is there to hold your hand just like he’s holding Sr. Brenner.

    What I’m trying to say and call me crazy if “IT” makes YA feel better but remember that just like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTIWloXBCww we will be Loved.

    God Bless

  • Win Nelson

    Thank you, that was lovely. May God bless Mother Antonia!

  • laurie

    seriously, she accomplished so much and the day of her death you focus on her failures?

  • MeanLizzie

    How funny…I didn’t think of anything in her life as “her failures.” You did.

  • FW Ken

    Fr. Thomas Merton wasn’t divorced, but he did have a biological child. The Trappists were concerned mainly that the child was provided for, although if memory serves, he and his mother were killed in a train wreck.

  • truebluekatie

    I love Mother Antonia. She would come across the border and speak in San Diego often, including at the Steubenville conference(s) with thousands of teenagers. She was a fiery, holy woman who brought many to Christ!

  • Karl

    I am deeply offended by your attitude towards annulment.

    I am forced, a second time, to defend our sacrament. Not a finger of help from the Catholic Church to help heal our marriage but
    decades of acceptance of a pair of adulterers who are still treated as a married couple, in the face of our five children.

    You should open your eyes to real victims of the clear malevolence of Catholicism. Funny, how the benefit of the doubt
    goes to those who spend a lifetime in mockery of their words spoken on an altar in front of a priest.

    It is the support of so-called Catholics like yourself which helps drive annulments and the huge incentive they give for unjust divorces. Sorry, Elizabeth, but you should learn more of our reality,
    rather then being so understanding of those who violate us and our children.

    People like yourself make my faithfulness and others like me, a joke. You cannot conceive of how much we hurt.

    Thank you.

    Karl J Wengenroth

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m sorry to hear that you are in pain but if you are “offended” by my attitude towards annulment, then I can’t help but wonder how willfully you wanted to be offended. I mean, really? You are offended by this? “I think annulments get a bad rap, because there is a potential for real healing, real instruction and self-understanding available through it. And I certainly don’t think we can address divorce lightly, or shrug it off; Christ himself emphasized against it, and when we become a church that stops giving precedence to his teachings, we’re screwed.”

    Yeah. I suck.

  • tj.nelson

    M. Alphonsa – Rose Hawthorne separated from her husband permanently – I’m not sure they were legally divorced, but may as well have been. She founded the Hawthorne Dominicans.
    Nothing is impossible with God.
    M. Antonia is a beautiful soul – the story of her past simply glorifies God all the more.

  • Billiamo

    I think they were killed in the London blitz in 1940, Ken.

  • Jack

    Mother Alexandra, late foundress of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, was herself a late vocation and twice married and divorced.

  • Alexandra Campbell

    My husband of 14 years abandoned me and our six kids right after we had our marriage convalidated by the Church after I re-verted in 2006. I consider myself a “consecrated divorcee” now. I did everything to reconcile the marriage, he even came back for a year and then left her the other woman finally again.

    I will most likely not be filing for a annulment, though I might be able to get one on the grounds that at the time of our convalidation, he was already in the illicit relationship. But I have prayed a lot and I think God wants me for something else, to be exclusively with Him and about His business. When my two boys graduate high school I am seriously considering attempting to enter the Eudist’s of the 11th Hour or some other religious order that will accept a 60 year old woman. Mother Antonia’s order only accepts women between about 40 and 65!! We need more orders like this! Or a raising of the age in other orders. The Eudist sisters must have jobs or their own financial support and their own health care. They often continue living and working (wearing the habit) in their local communities after spending a novitiate in Tijuana at the Mother House.

    I am keeping my self chaste because I would NEVER give up receiving the Eucharist for a relationship with a human man! Being divorced was forced upon me and am going to do my best to “be about the things of Lord” for the rest of my life. I want to help other divorced/abandoned Catholic women realize that they should not jump into new relationships/marriages if they are serious about their faith.

    Only the belief in the REAL PRESENCE helped me realize that there was really no question about getting remarried or even dating! I cannot fathom being denied communion. I sure hope the Pope does not relax the rules and allow divorced and remarried people who have not had a valid annulment receive Communion as that would be a total slap in the face to those trying to live faithfully the Churches teaching from the earliest days.

    My husband had to get an annulment to marry me in the church and this was a rigorous and thoughtful process on the part of the Church so I do not have a problem with annulments in principal if they are done correctly. I hate to think that would be handed out rather automatically to the offending party with no consideration of the one being abandoned.

  • Matt

    Karl: You’ve obviously suffered a great injustice. I, too, am a victim of divorce from the child’s perspective. I used to take this issue so seriously that it became an obsession for me. Funny thing was: It never did a thing to change the situation. It only caused me tons of worry and anxiety. One time I asked the Lord, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I get so bent out of shape over this?” His response seemed to be, “you need to forgive and accept that what happened happened and there’s no going back.” Since making that act of forgiveness I have felt so much more at peace. I no longer get too upset, even when I see similar situations unfolding before me. That doesn’t mean I’ve changed my position on divorce and remarriage or that I condone what happened, but now I live in peace with myself, my parents, the “other woman”, and the “other man”. And I pray for their eventual reconciliation with God, by whatever means and timing He deems fit. I pray that you will find peace, too, Karl. Remember that God allowed this to happen — he did not will it, but he allowed it, and he allowed it for a reason… one that will ultimately redound to the good for the glory of God (Rom 8:28).

  • donttouchme

    I can’t imagine a way that adultery could be regularized. Sign a piece of paper for the state and your affair is suddenly legit? I don’t see it. Why not also allow fornicators to receive communion?

  • LayVirginity

    ‘Annulments’ are not valid anyway – even when given by popes. All annulments accommodate adultery to make money for the clergy.

    Understand: marriage is metaphysically indissoluble. Canon ‘law’ is evil in permitting any annulment at all. All bishops and popes just make money out of adulterers and lead them to hell.

  • joycelen

    I do understand your pain Karl as I have been in your shoes. But then I do thank God that the Church understood that “marriage” and granted an annulment so that my husband and I could enter the Church. In your case perhaps a mistake was made. Please do not hate the Church for it. You are in good standing. I just hope you are receiving the Sacraments, for there is no reason why you should not.

  • jw

    After 40 yrs. I petitioned and received an annulment. I never paid a dime. I was encouraged to petition no matter what the outcome.

  • Victor

    (((Yeah. I suck.)))
    You’re being too hard on yourself Anchoress! Really you are. NOW!
    Go say a few prayers for sinner vic! :)
    God Bless Peace

  • Almario Javier

    Why would canon law be evil in declaring that a marriage never metaphysically happened? Not to mention that those unable to afford the usual fees attendant to canonical proceedings can and do have them waived. If anything, it would largely be a monetary loss for the clergy you seem to revile so much.

    And where do you get your sources that declaring that a marriage never took place is evil?

  • Tania

    Thanks for this piece of news. I feel lucky to have briefly met and heard Mother Antonia speak back in 2007, on assignment for the Catholic New World/CNS. She was an amazing woman!

    This story about her, by Fr. Melvin James, has really stuck with me: “My first day in the prisons, there was a man who was tattooed, teeth missing, big scar on the side of his face, just mean and rough-looking,” Father James said. “Mother Antonia went up to this guy to try to give him a kiss, like she does everyone, and he backed away. So she whispered something in his ear, and after about 30 seconds, he was weeping, sobbing, crying. All this happened in about a minute. The change in this rough man, it was unbelievable. She can have this effect on people.” (The rest of the article is here, if anyone is interested: http://taniamann.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/prisonangel/)

  • FW Ken

    “If memory serves” in my vocabulary is a tenuous reference at best. You are probably right, although there is precious little information out there on the child.

  • Nan

    I’ve seen Karls’ comments before. I think he looks for commentary about annulment and is bitter. He really should do something to help himself heal. My understanding of the annulment process is that it means the marriage was found to be deficient at its formation; the classic example is Ted Kennedy marrying his first wife while having no intention of being faithful to her; if that story is true, an important component of a sacramental marriage was missing so it was found not to have been a true marriage.

  • Nan

    Who died and made you the pope? Canon law *isn’t* evil. I doubt the pope is a member of the marriage tribunal; if you’re thinking of Henry VIII, his first marriage was annulled as he married his brother’s widow, which wasn’t allowed. He used that as the basis for annulment. In that case it was valid. It was the next round, in which he wasn’t allowed an annulment which precipitated his break from the Church. The Church that wouldn’t allow divorce at will.

  • David

    I think that if the Church gives in on the issue of divorce and remarriage, then we might as well give up on the whole issue of defending marriage, and for that matter, any of the so called “pelvic issues.” After all, isn’t that what happened to the culture at large?


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