Sister Antonia Brenner Brings the Light of Hope to the Dark Cells of a Mexican Prison

updated 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"In my dream," recalls Sister Antonia Brenner, "I was at Calvary. A Roman guard came to me and said I was to be crucified. I knelt down and asked God to take my life. Then the guard came back and said, 'You don't have to pray, because there's a man here who wants to take your place.' He was in a cart, and he had the look of somebody willing to give everything and in return was waiting for nothing. The guard said, 'He wants you to be with him.' I said, 'No, not me. I can't stand the violence.' Then I turned back and saw that the man was stretched out on the ground. I didn't know it was Jesus, but I felt love. I knelt behind him and took his face in my hands. But he didn't have a face anymore. It was blank. 'No matter what they do to me, I'm never going to leave you,' I said. I braced myself, waiting for the blow of the hammer to drive in the nails. And then I woke up...."

It's 7:00 a.m. on Good Friday morning and Sister Brenner, 49, is heading out to meet the new prisoners arriving at La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana. Wearing a clean white habit, its wimple framing her warm smile and kindly blue eyes, she carries a tape recorder playing a soothing Julio Iglesias song. "Don't be afraid," she tells the men. "Christ was a prisoner just like you. He knows what it's like to be arrested and interrogated and sent away. He knows what it's like to be hated and mocked and humiliated. He hasn't abandoned you. In all of the Scripture, he doesn't speak a word against you." One by one, the prisoners walk down a narrow alley lined with guards, announcing their names and their crimes. They call it El Grito, "The Cry."

For the last nine years Sister Brenner has been a Christian witness to this scene. Living in a small, dark cell in the women's section of the prison so that she can be closer to her charges, she has devoted her life to bringing hope to society's outcasts. The prisoners and guards call her Mama. Her niños are the unwanted—rapists, child molesters, murderers, drug dealers—and she embraces even the worst of them.

"I didn't come to prison to rehabilitate," she explains. "I came to console. I came to walk a hard mile with somebody, not to tell them what they could be or what they ought to become, but just for them to be able to look over their shoulders and see that someone is with them." She has attended the birth of their children, and the burial of their dead. She has offered those just released a few dollars for a bus home, a place to stay for a few nights or just a blanket to keep warm. She has set up a hospice for prisoners' dying relatives, started a carpentry shop and lobbied successfully to have the locked cells replaced with private and semiprivate rooms. She also has had great success with a program designed with the help of Dr. Merrill Olesen that removes gang tattoos so prisoners can go back into the world without being marked as former gang members. "She brings joy and happiness into the prisoners' lives," says Bishop Leo T Maher, the head of the nearby San Diego, Calif. Roman Catholic diocese. "Where there was no hope before, she manages to instill confidence."

To a gringo, the words "Mexican prison" conjure up images of unimaginable horror, but La Mesa often resembles a campesino village more than a penitentiary. Visiting children play with their parents; husbands and wives embrace. A group of prisoners starts up a soccer match, while other inmates do business at shops they have started—coffee stands, fruit-juice bars, even one that sells music tapes. As Sister Brenner walks through the yard, men come up one by one, handing her notes to be delivered outside, requesting assistance or simply seeking a smile and a hug.

A staunch opponent of capital punishment, Sister Brenner believes that depriving a criminal of freedom is punishment enough. "Once a policeman said to me, 'I don't understand you, Mama. I just can't see how you step out to defend men that have done such hideous things.' I said I instinctively do it. Because he's God's image and likeness, because whoever he appears to be, he's my brother and yours, and I don't want him to be hurt. Because it's not going to bring back the dead, or take away the pain of the raped child or woman. Do I pity their victims more? Of course I do. But Jesus said, 'Whatever you do to the least of mine, you do to me as well.' "

Unlike most nuns, Sister Brenner was once a married woman. Born Mary Clark, one of three children in a wealthy California Roman Catholic family, she grew up in Beverly Hills, where her father, Joe Clark, owned a thriving company that made duplicating supplies. After World War II, she married returning serviceman Carl Brenner and the couple took over the family business. They had seven children, now ages 24 to 38.

Over the years Brenner became involved in social work. On a trip 18 years ago to a Tijuana clinic to deliver medical supplies, she was mistakenly sent to La Mesa Penitentiary. The sight of the prisoners overwhelmed her. Afterward, whenever she could, she would gather food and clothing and drive from Los Angeles to visit the prisoners. "I fell in love," she says, "like falling in love with a person." Meanwhile her longtime marriage began to fall apart. She and her husband were divorced in 1972, and five years later she moved to San Diego to be nearer the prison. There she joined the Auxiliary of the Apostolate, an order of 300 lay nuns who devote themselves to charitable acts. Donning a habit to make herself visible and identify her calling, she renamed herself "Antonia," a name more familiar to her charges. "I've never felt that I've ever given up anything," she says. "When you find something worth dying for, you've found something worth living for."

In the clinic of La Mesa, a 20-year-old prisoner trembles in the throes of an epileptic seizure. Sister Brenner stands behind him, holding his face in her hands, staying with him until the fit subsides. "Every time I become afraid or sickened by an old man or woman who is dying," she says, "I just think back to the dream I had and say, 'I'm not going to leave them.' That face in the dream was blank because it's been filled over the years thousands of times with thousands of faces. Today this man is being crucified in his own way. It's the day that he is alone. And that's why I was called. Just to be with him."

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