The LA Times has a astonishing story of a nun who chose to live in jail:
Sister Antonia Brenner, a Beverly Hills-raised mother of seven who became a Roman Catholic nun and moved into a notorious Tijuana prison where she spent more than three decades mending broken lives, easing tensions and dispensing everything from toothbrushes to bail money, has died. She was 86.
She was born Mary Clarke in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, 1926, to Irish immigrant parents. Her father grew wealthy running an office supply business, and the family counted Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant among their neighbors. She married and raised four daughters and three sons, all the while becoming deeply involved in charity work.
In 1977, after her children were grown and two marriages had ended in divorce — a source of sadness that she rarely talked about — Brenner gave away her expensive clothes and belongings, left her Ventura apartment and moved to La Mesa penitentiary. She had delivered donations in the past to the prison, each visit filling her with compassion.
"Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars. … 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," Brenner told The Times in a 1982 interview. "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."
Small of stature, with blue eyes peeking out from under her traditional black–and-white habit, Brenner cut a strikingly serene presence in the overcrowded prison of 8,000. She lived as any other inmate, sleeping in a 10-by-10-foot cell, eating the same food and lining up for morning roll call.
She would walk freely among thieves and drug traffickers and murderers, smiling, touching cheeks and offering prayers. Many were violent men with desperate needs. She kept extra toilet paper in her cell, arranged for medical treatment, attended funerals.
Guards and inmates alike started referring to her as the prison angel. In the cellblocks she was known simply as "Mama." "There isn't anyone who hasn't heard my lecture on victims," she said in a 2002 Times story. "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."
What an extraordinary path! She took her generous soul to the cell block and offered these men the very maternal affection that could transform their disoriented lives. It was not an isolated gift of self, but the divine gift borne of intimacy with God, Who was able to work through her.
It is clear that her prison door wasn't locked, and that she could come and go--which she did for the benefit of her sons in jail.
A revered figure in Tijuana, where she counted police chiefs and politicians among her friends, Brenner was honored with the naming of a street after her outside the prison. In the late 1990s, she established her own religious order, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour. Tijuana Archbishop Rafael Romo said she possessed the qualities of a saint and said her death was a "terrible loss" for the city, the Tijuana newspaper Frontera reported.
Brenner often visited her family in Southern California, where she would regale her more than 45 grandchildren and great-grandchildren with stories about her charity work. "She was a tiny woman with a little fire and a lot of passion," Christina Brenner said. "We called her the Eveready battery. She wouldn't stop. She was always going."
"You walk in her presence and you know you're in a different world," Carroll said. "Rhyme, reason — you can't rationalize why she did it. She has that one-on-one relationship with God."
She reached out to women as well, those who were prayerfully considering what God might have in store for them:
Many women in mid life or later find themselves longing for something more in their lives. While the heart is searching, listening for a call, the head is saying I want to do something good, something important, with the rest of my years.
Her invitation was to join her in the ministry, to offer an "a kind of encore dedicated to Our Lord." Priceless!
It gives us something to think about when we ponder the word "penitentiary." Would that many of these men find Truth through her ministry, and may this dear Sister rest in peace.