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The extraordinary deeds of an ordinary Catholic

Mother Antonia Brenner decided at the age of 50 to devote herself to the inmates of a Tijuana prison

By on Thursday, 24 October 2013

Mother Antonia Brenner (CNS)

Mother Antonia Brenner (CNS)

The Catholic Church is full of extraordinary people, many of whom you have never heard of. One such, of whom I had not heard, was Mother Antonia Brenner, whose obituary has just appeared at the Telegraph.

First of all, not to be superficial, but just look at that photograph on the Telegraph website. The traditional nun’s veil and habit; the radiant smile; the hand raised in cheery, confident and sincere greeting; the stunning lady-of-a-certain-age good looks: Mother Antonia comes over as a magnetic personality, the sort of person you meet once, and whom you never forget. She ticks the same boxes as the late Blessed John Paul II.

Then there is the life story. It was all very ordinary for much of her life. Growing up in the Great Depression, the good times that come from prosperity, the two marriages, the eight children, the mink coats, the ballgowns – pretty average for life in Beverley Hills, or so I imagine. And the Catholicism, and the charity work, and then the extraordinary decision at the age of fifty or so to go and devote herself entirely to the inmates of a Tijuana prison. But that is the wonderful thing about Catholicism: it enables the most ordinary people to do the most extraordinary things.

The Daily Telegraph describes the prison she worked in, with its customary understatement, as “a notorious hellhole”. In fact there are no words to describe the depravity of Mexico’s criminal class. Their evil behaviour is, even in this world of ours, jaw-dropping: I have just been reading the latest chronicle of Mexico’s drug wars, entitled Narcoland, by Anabel Hernandez. The criminals of Tijuana are beyond redemption. So, what did Mother Antonia do? Did she wring her hands and say how ghastly it all was? No, she did not.

Instead, the obituary tells us: “[She] transformed the atmosphere. Armed with a Bible, a Spanish dictionary and her own unassailable moral authority, she waded into riots and gun battles; shamed prison authorities into improving conditions and brought human rights violations to the attention of newspapers. She persuaded doctors and dentists to hold free clinics, got local bakers to donate bread to supplement the meagre prison rations, rescued lavatories from junk yards and insisted on their being installed, prayed with prisoners and guards and got to know their families. She taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong, and many would later testify that her example had persuaded them to mend their ways.”

Two things leap out of that account – her own unassailable moral authority, and the idea that there is a moral order: she taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong. A combination of the two made for success: an old recipe, please note, but one that makes complete sense even today.

Mother Antonia was clearly a leader, just like religious founders of old. The bishop who first encouraged her was Juan Jesus Posadas. He later became Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara. In 1993 he was murdered, cut down by a hail of bullets in the airport carpark. The responsibility for this lies with the drug cartels, or so the official version has it. Anabel Hernandez thinks otherwise.

Meanwhile, as I sit here writing this, all over the world, people are sitting around crticising the Catholic Church and blaming it for many of the world’s ills. To those people, my message is simple. Mother Antonia, from her place in heaven, is now praying for you. Watch out!

  • Meggles

    What a lady, what a treasure in heaven. God Bless her.

  • Benedict Carter

    Can only agree. This is heroic virtue for sure.

  • Meggles

    Amen to that, Benedict. I feel uplifted and inspired.

  • LocutusOP

    Thanks for the uplifting article, Father ALS.

    When I face my eternal judgement one day, I hope I’ll be able to approach it having served God in the same selfless spirit she did.

  • sclerotic

    A divorcee gets the approval of CH? Gosh.

  • prakash

    What is this supposed to mean?

  • mikethelionheart

    Why not, sclerotic?

    Does it bother you when people or groups you don’t like don’t fit neatly into the lies that you’ve built up around them?

  • Dominic Farrell

    Luke Coppen’s morning Catholic must-reads lead me to read about this lady on Wednesday. Andrew Sullivan, who wrote this article on a site called ‘The Biased and Balanced Dish’, had this extraordinary take on Mother Antonia:

    What I love about Mother Antonia, above all, however, is her demonstration of the power of women in creating a future for Christianity. She refused to let rules about such things as divorce prevent her from ministering to those she felt need ministry. She refused to let her gender limit her in any way. She – not the male hierarchy – is the church. And she reminds us of the appalling, morally crippling, un-Christian subjugation of women in the Catholic Church.

    What is not clear is whether this was Mother Antonia’s view as well. Does anyone know?

  • $74497298

    “The extraordinary deeds of an ordinary Catholic”

    Extraordinary deeds yes – but an “ordinary Catholic”?
    Twice divorced and (after a slow start) very wealthy, living among the richest in the richest nation on earth, in super-prime real estate.

    She was an extraordinary human being and a most unusual kind of Catholic.

  • Fr Nick Cooke

    Amen to that!

  • Benedict Carter

    The Church’s history is littered with souls like hers. You’ve never once SERIOUSLY asked yourself why, have you?

  • Benedict Carter

    Are you both feminist nutters pretending to be men?

  • Dominic Farrell

    I was quoting this in horror, not approval. My point was that the link provided by Luke Coppen led to the article from which I took this paragraph. What I was asking was whether the writer was reading his own twisted view of how the Church treats women into Mother Antonia’s life, or whether she herself had expressed such opinions. Sorry if that wasn’t clear in my earlier post.

    I have never been called a feminist nutter before!

  • LocutusOP

    I don’t know either, but I doubt a woman with such attitudes could have given herself so selflessly in service to others….It’s probably some moron reading his own story into her life.

  • Benedict Carter

    Apologies from me.

  • Dave

    That is a generous way of putting it.

    In any case, a life of service and obedience would be an odd way of sticking it to the ‘male hierarchy’.

  • $74497298

    “The Church’s history is littered with souls like hers.” Yes, I agree.
    ” You’ve never once SERIOUSLY asked yourself why, have you?” I’ve contemplated this many times. Perhaps it is ultimately a determination to do what is right – and of course the courage to do it. She had both and a great deal more beside.

    But I still hold that she was a most UNUSUAL Catholic.

  • Benedict Carter

    Because of her rarity? It’s a head-line case yes, but there are many, many hidden versions of her.

  • $74497298

    How many I do not know, nor do you – they are by definition hidden.
    That there are others I do not doubt.

  • TieHard

    She looks a bit tired but cheeky to me

  • Scyptical Chymist

    This extraordinary holy woman is pictured at the altar with arms across her chest – the recognized sign that she feels unworthy to receive communion but requesting a blessing instead.Twice divorced so not in communion with the Church but nevertheless living Our Lord’s instructions to love her neighbour – how many of us Catholics have demonstrated even a tiny part of her selflessness? Contemplating her life story I can only believe that though technically tainted by her divorces, she must surely be in heaven now. This is the great paradox for any Catholic who is loyal to the Church (as I am sure she was too but was not strictly speaking a member). What a contrast to those “Catholic” politicians who have supported abortion and same-sex marriage legislation yet ostentatiously present themselves at the altar on Sundays and run “Charities” with highly paid posts staffed by their friends.

  • Romulus

    Even with two divorces behind her, there is no reason to think Mother Antonia did not lead a celibate life. I can therefore think of no reason the sacrament of Confession and hence full communion in the Church, would have been unavailable to her. If you have facts to the contrary, it would be interesting to know.

  • Sue in soCal

    I guess sclerotic has never heard of St. Augustine.

  • Benedict Carter

    “Twice divorced so not in communion with the Church …”


  • Scyptical Chymist

    You may well be right and I sincerely hope so. Perhaps because of second divorce (ergo a remarriage) as continuing impediment. I am not sure of the Church’s current view in such cases and you are likely to be better informed than I am. The picture does show the sign asking for a blessing rather than reception of the host though, for whatever reason.