Antonia Brenner, the woman who abandoned the luxury of Beverly Hills to found an order of nuns that helps prisoners in a Tijuana prison – La Opinion

Antonia Brenner, the woman who abandoned the luxury of Beverly Hills to found an order of nuns that helps prisoners in a Tijuana prison – La Opinion

The walls of La Mesa State Penitentiary, with its guard towers and barbed wire, loom over the surrounding streets of the city of Tijuana in northwestern Mexico.

Inside, guards in balaclavas with automatic weapons on their chests patrol the hallways.

There are the sounds of electric doors opening and closing, and walkie-talkies emitting confusing messages.

And the hot, still air carries the screams of the inmates playing volleyball in the yard; The inmates are enjoying one of only two outdoor recreation sessions they have weekly.

On the ground floor, another damp concrete hallway leads to a single isolated cell.

There is a narrow hospital-like bed, a desk with drawers, and a large image of Jesus Christ on one wall.

For 35 years, This was the home of mother Antonia, an American divorcee and Beverly Hills socialite.who died in 2013.

Mother Antonia moved to Tijuana in the 1970s and for the rest of her life dedicated herself to serving those in need, especially the prisoners of La Mesa.

She also founded a congregation of nuns: the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.

It is a Catholic order made up of mature women called to religious life in advanced stages of their lives who promise to dedicate the rest of their time on earth – in the eleventh hour of their lives – to helping the poor on both sides of the border. between the US and Mexico.

“I was surprised that Mother Antonia could think of this as her home,” Sister Viola, now the order’s leader, says in the austere cell.

“But she loved it.”

“I knew this was for me.”

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Courtesy of Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour: The order was founded by Mother Antonia Brenner. At first, the Catholic Church refused to support it; in fact, as a divorcee, she was unable to take Holy Communion for many years. But then Pope John Paul II gave him his blessing.

Sister Viola is almost 84 years old and she is one of the nuns who visits La Mesa every weekday.

However, this was not the life he had planned.

A former employee of the JC Penney clothing chain, and married for five decades, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Sister Viola was looking forward to retirement in the United States.

But suddenly, 16 years ago, her husband had a massive stroke and died.

“I was a little dissatisfied with our Lord,” she says, in what is clearly an understatement.

A Hispanic who speaks fluent Spanish, Sister Viola wanted to work with migrants, but none of the organizations she applied to hired her because of her age.

Then he read about Mother Antonia’s work at La Mesa.

“I came to visit her and knew this was for me,” he says.

Her children did not agree with her becoming a he stayed in the US for another year.

But she wanted something more, and her children began to realize that she was unhappy.

That’s why when she wanted to go back to work in Tijuana, they supported her.

The service

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BBC: In the service, there are songs, prayers and readings.

Every day is different at La Mesa para las Hermanas.

In the large prison chapel, female inmates file in, dressed in gray, with their hands held behind their backs: all inmates must walk like this when moving around the prison.

Sister Ann Gertrude, 55, the youngest of the 12 Eudist servants, welcomes and blesses the inmates as they enter.

Originally from Cameroon, she came to Tijuana after a career in nursing and missionary work in New York City. A documentary about Mother Antonia moved her.

“I was crying and I said, ‘Lord, are you calling me, what is this?’”

She moved to Mexico, driven by the example of Mother Antonia and the prison ministry.

“I saw the misery in New York,” he says. “But He had never been around someone who had no freedom, no one to visit him and no one to pray with him.“.

Sister Ann Gertrude made her vows in 2020.

In the chapel, she leads the service with Sister Nélida, a 76-year-old Peruvian who joined the Eudist Servants after working as an accountant in Los Angeles.

The service is cheerful.

There are songs and prayers, and the prisoners volunteer for the readings.

Several of the women cry, tears of happiness perhaps, or to release sadness and regret.

Under a regime in which inmates spend time outside their cells so infrequently, for most of these women, a visit to the chapel is an event.

In the midst of violence

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BBC: Maribel has been in prison for 13 years.

Maribel, one of the volunteer readers, is radiant.

“For me, Sisters’ visits are a blessing. They mean a lot to me,” she says, smiling.

“These women have left everything, including their families, and they have done it for the love of God.”

Maribel has served 13 years of a 20-year sentence for kidnapping.

Her case is a reminder of the context in which the Eudist Servants have chosen to work.

Tijuana sits right on the US border, and is dominated by the immense rusty red American fence that snakes through the mountainous terrain.

This is one of the most violent cities in Mexico, partly controlled by organized crime groups that traffic drugs and migrants to the US.

Maribel was asked to take care of a woman who was going to cross the border illegally. What she didn’t know, she says, is that the woman was being trafficked. He says if she had known, he would have never done it.

Before the inmates are escorted back to their cells, the Sisters maneuver two large shopping carts filled with toiletries, juice, and donuts.

They distribute them and there is spontaneous applause for the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.

At risk

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BBC: Sister Viola with a picture of Mother Antonia and a child.

There is much gratitude within these prison walls for the social services provided by the Sisters.

On a visit to the cell block that houses male prisoners over 60, Sister Nélida crosses the room with a bag of toilet paper rolls that is almost as big as she is.

Wait with sisters Viola and Ann Gertrude for permission to enter.

“They have to make sure the men have their clothes on. But I was married for 50 years, so it’s nothing I haven’t seen,” says Sister Viola.

There is a long hallway with cells. Each houses 6 men in 3-story bunks, with a small bathroom behind a wall at the back.

They are difficult living conditions.

As soon as the nuns enter, the men show their rosaries through the bars, asking them to bless their beads. Sister Viola, who has a plastic bottle of emergency holy water in her pocket, does so.

“Every time they come, they are like family, because I don’t receive visitors,” says José.

Toilet paper is distributed, along with some sweets. There are jokes, prayers and laughter.

“They are my brothers,” says Sister Ann Gertrude. “They are always happy to see us, and we are always happy to see them.”

One of the men talks to Sister Viola about Mother Antonia. He says she got him her first false teeth in 2005.

AND the need here remains great.

Along the hallway, the Sisters collect notes: there are requests for dental work, medicines and a blanket. And one from a man who is having problems with her glass eye.

“We’ll send him to our ophthalmologist,” says Sister Viola.

At the end of today’s visit to the cell block, this seemingly indefatigable octogenarian falters slightly. That worries her.

With only a dozen sisters in the order, and the average age around 70, Mother Antonia’s legacy could be at risk.

“We need new blood,” says Sister Viola.

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