Nun Raised in Beverly Hills Traded Posh Life for Prison Life

Sister Antonia Brenner. (AP Images)She was living what many would consider to be a dream life: Raised in Beverly Hills, living in a beachfront home along the California coast, lots of kids and grandkids nearby.

And then she left it all to live in a Mexican prison.

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After making headlines for her decision to become a nun and tend to prisoners in Tijuana, Mexico, more than three decades ago, Sister Antonia Brenner has died at age 86, the Los Angeles Times reported. Brenner died in the convent she founded in Mexico, according to Channel 8 in San Diego, She had been suffering from a weak heart and a neuromuscular condition.

The wife and mother who became a sister at the age of 50 raised seven children and had married (and divorced) twice.

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Born Mary Clarke in 1926 to Irish immigrants, she led a busy life in Southern California, raising her children and doing charity work, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 1965, she made her first trip to La Mesa State Penitentiary to deliver medical supplies, according to the Daily Mail. The place, inhabited with drug dealers, murderers, and thieves, had an impact on her, "filling her with compassion," the Times reported.

"Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars," Brenner told the Times in a 1982 interview. "When I left, I thought a lot about the men. When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter. I wondered if they had medicine and how their families were doing. ... You know, when I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I'd come home."

In 1977, divorced and with her children out of the house, Brenner gave away her pricey possessions to become a Roman Catholic nun and moved into the Mexican prison, trading her Ventura beach house for a concrete 10-by-10 room and slept on a cot. She became known as the "prison angel."

"I'm the mother of seven children," the nun with a memorable giggle told the Times in a 2002 interview. "I'm prepared for everything."

Not that it was an easy life. The prison had a reputation for riots, which she did not fear. An uprising in 2008 led to the death of 23 inmates. "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."

But Brenner did not isolate herself from her family. According to her daughter-in-law, she made frequent trips back to Southern California with stories of her charitable work. "She was a tiny woman with a little fire and a lot of passion," Christina Brenner told the Associated Press. "We called her the Eveready battery. She wouldn't stop. She was always going."

Guards and inmates referred to her as "Mama," and she helped victims and guards as well as the prisoners. "There isn't anyone who hasn't heard my lecture on victims," she told the Times in a 2002 interview. "They have to accept that they're wrong. They have to see the consequences. They have to feel the agony. ... But I do love them dearly."

Eventually, Brenner started her own religious community, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, the place she eventually lived as her health failed her and where she died on Thursday.

Along with her seven children, Brenner is survived by 45 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Times reported.

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