Sister cares for 'prison angel' - Catholic Courier

Sister cares for ‘prison angel’

ONTARIO — Janice Ann Marie Cooke traveled to Tijuana in June 2011 with the intention of joining the Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour, a religious community of women based in the Mexican city.

She didn’t expect to develop a close relationship with the order’s foundress, Mother Antonia Brenner, yet that’s exactly what happened. In fact, Sister Cooke, who joined the order in March 2012, was with Mother Antonia when she passed away Oct. 17, 2013.

“I was her helper, her secretary, her friend, her confidante. It was wonderful,” Sister Cooke recently told the Catholic Courier.

Sitting in the kitchen of her Ontario home, Sister Cooke reminisced about the early days of her friendship with Mother Antonia. After arriving in Tijuana Sister Cooke spent the next nine months completing the Eudist Servants’ formation process, which included working in the order’s various ministries and missions. She also was assigned to help care for Mother Antonia, who recently had moved out of the cell she’d voluntarily occupied at La Mesa Penitentiary for the past three decades.

“I didn’t know her too well, but we clicked. We got to be pretty close. I just found her fascinating,” Sister Cooke said.

Sister Cooke is not the only one who found Mother Antonia fascinating. Mother Antonia is the subject of the 2005 book The Prison Angel by Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan; the 2010 documentary, “La Mama,” narrated by actress Susan Sarandon; and numerous articles in such publications as The New York Times, Reader’s Digest and the L.A. Times.

Born Mary Clarke in 1926, Mother Antonia belonged to a wealthy family and grew up in Beverly Hills, according to her biography on the Eudist Servants’ website, The mother of seven children, she was married and divorced twice before she began her prison ministry in La Mesa in 1965. At that point she was helping a priest deliver medicine and other supplies in the prison, but by 1978 she’d moved into a cell in the women’s wing in order to more efficiently serve La Mesa’s inmates.

“God’s grace brought me here, and a calling inside of me, a longing to serve God in the person and the presence of those rejected by the world. And so Tijuana was a perfect place for me to come, and I’ve loved it ever since,” Mother Antonia explained in “La Mama.”

With permission from the bishops of the Archdiocese of Tijuana and the Diocese of San Diego, she eventually became a religious sister at the age of 50, according to Catholic News Service. She eventually established the Eudist Sisters of the 11th Hour, which in 2003 was formally accepted by the Archdiocese of Tijuana, according to Mother Antonia’s biography.

“The Servants of the 11th Hour means that we are not young,” Mother Antonia said in “La Mama.” “We are coming to give all the gifts and talents that God has given us at the 11th hour of our lives.”

Mother Antonia referred to all the inmates, guards and police officers of La Mesa and Tijuana as her children and is credited with stopping at least one prison riot, according to “La Mama.” She and the members of her order provided food, medical supplies, books and clothing to La Mesa’s inmates and provided assistance for a number of other populations in the area, including prisoners’ families and women with cancer.

Eudist Servants profess yearly vows rather than perpetual vows, so they are free to leave the order if they ever feel called to do so. There are approximately 20 women religious and a number of associates in the Eudist Servants, Sister Cooke said. While the majority serve in Tijuana and San Diego, the rest carry out their missions in their hometowns. After professing her vows in March 2012, Sister Cooke returned to Ontario to serve at Sugar’s Acres of Love, a then-new place of respite for families and children with disabilities and medical problems. She soon learned that Mother Antonia had fallen ill, however, and returned to Tijuana to help care for her superior.

By that time Mother Antonia’s age and health had forced her to move out of the 10-by-10 cell she’d inhabited at La Mesa since 1978, but she still returned to the prison twice a week with Sister Cooke. After greeting her “children,” Mother Antonia would rest in her former room while Sister Cooke delivered supplies throughout the prison and took note of any particular items inmates or staff needed. Sister Cooke said she could tell Mother Antonia was getting tired, yet she enjoyed being in the presence of the inmates. In her final months her spirits were buoyed by the inmates she’d spent decades caring for, Sister Cooke said.

“She was just amazing, absolutely amazing, and I don’t think there’s anybody that’s ever going to be able to do what she did,” Sister Cooke said. “She loved God so much. She’s just somebody you’ll never forget.”


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