The Beverly Hills Divorcee Saint

Mary Clarke was raised by a very wealthy father in Beverly Hills, whose business she ran for a while after his death. She married twice and divorced twice, with eight children. Always interested in charity work, Clarke, then Brenner, started to help a priest minister to the hardcore inmates of Tijuana’s La Mesa prison. It changed her life. From her obituary this week:

Ms. Brenner began providing for inmates’ basic needs, giving them aspirin, blankets, toiletries and prescription eyeglasses. She sang in worship services. She received a prison contract to sell soda to prisoners and used the proceeds to bail out low-level offenders. If a prisoner died, of illness or in a gang fight, she prepared him for burial. Inmates told how Mother Antonia once walked into the middle of a prison riot while bullets flew and tear gas filled the air. When the inmates saw her, fearless in her habit, the fighting stopped. She never seemed to stop smiling.

In due course, she decided to move into the prison itself, in a 10′ by 10′ cell in the women’s section:

“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she told The Washington Post in 2002. “I have to be here with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has an appendix [attack], in case someone dies.”

What makes her ministry even more remarkable is that as a twice-divorced woman, the church hierarchy could never accept her into a religious order. So she simply, like Saint Francis, invented her own. She made her own nun’s habit, and simply did what she believed was God’s work. In the end, the hierarchy – just as with Saint Francis – relented and blessed her new order, The Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour. If you are a mature woman and are interested in their work, check out this page. The criterion for joining them is simple:

Members must, in their hearts and in their lives, bear the pain of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the rejected, the forgotten and the abandoned children of God.

We have been used to reading such terrible things about religion – from the fanatics who murdered so many on that September morning to the death threats against young girls seeking an education and the burning of schools and massacring of sectarian enemies. No one should deny the unique power of religion turned into an instrument of earthly power and violence. But equally, the countless moments of mercy, tenderness, self-sacrifice and courage that occur every day and that spring from the same religious impulse must always be considered alongside the bad. It was a religious vision that propelled Mary Clarke and a priest called Anthony who inspired her to call herself Sister and then Mother Antonia:

She has said that in 1969 she had a dream that she was a prisoner at Calvary and about to be executed, when Jesus appeared to her and offered to take her place. She refused his offer, touched him on the cheek, and told him she would never leave him, no matter what happens to her.

No, Christopher, religion does not poison everything. It can be used in a poisonous way, but it can also be the most powerful force for human 51X2YX9WYSLsalvation – in the present moment – that we have at our disposal.

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.

It must end as a matter or moral urgency, and when it does, the power of women as spiritual leaders and healers may shock and surprise many but elevate us all. In the words of Mother Antonia, from inside a prison where rapists, murderers, gang-lords and hit-men resided:

Pleasure depends on where you are, who you are with, what you are eating. Happiness is different. Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years. I have been upset, angry. I have been sad. But never depressed. I have a reason for my being.

(Photograph: the biography of Mother Antonia, The Prison Angel, which can be bought here.)