TECHNY, Ill. (CNS) — Clutching a photograph of a beautiful 21-year-old woman lying dead of AIDS, she speaks of those whose hands she has held, of the destitute, sick and lonely. Around her neck hangs a cross made of three nails, a Star of David in the center. It was crafted for her by one of the thousands of prisoners to whom she ministers in Tijuana, Mexico.

She is Mother Antonia Brenner, whom many call “the Prison Angel.” Until 1977, Mother Antonia lived in Beverly Hills, Calif., and was a twice-divorced mother of seven. Then she took on a habit and veil and moved to Tijuana.

Today she lives in a cell in La Mesa prison, where she serves the prisoners and their families. This fall, she visited Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center to share her story and her advice.

“In 30 years there, I haven’t met anyone that wasn’t worth everything I could give to them — even my life,” Mother Antonia said. “I see the image and likeness of God in each and every one of them.”

Her 5-foot-2 frame appears simultaneously frail and powerful as she recounts one of many deaths she has witnessed.

“He died alone as I held his hand,” she said. “He had no parents. I held his hand all night long and watched him die, slowly and painfully. He was so grateful for just a word, for a hand in his hand. ‘I want to be free,’ he said.”

The hours ticked by, until the doctor told Mother Antonia that the man had died.

“I kissed him, because there was some girl in the world who loved him,” she said. “I hugged him, because there was a mother out there who wanted to hold her son. And I blessed him, because I knew there was a priest somewhere who would have wanted to pray over him.”

She supports those inside the prison emotionally and often financially, as well as running a house called Casa Campos de San Miguel for women who have just been released and those with AIDS. The house was donated by a drug dealer whom she defended and who turned his life around.

In October 2005, Divine Word Father Melvin James joined her in Tijuana.

“My first day in the prisons, there was a man who was tattooed, teeth missing, big scar on the side of his face, just mean and rough-looking,” Father James said. “Mother Antonia went up to this guy to try to give him a kiss, like she does everyone, and he backed away. So she whispered something in his ear, and after about 30 seconds, he was weeping, sobbing, crying. All this happened in about a minute. The change in this rough man, it was unbelievable. She can have this effect on people.”

Having trained as a tailor when he first joined as a missionary in Techny, Father James continues to make his own vestments, and has designed and sewn veils for the 10 members of Mother Antonia’s congregation, called the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.

The most rewarding part of his work, he said, is her “effusive love that she has for everybody in the world — the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick.”

“Also, she’s fun!” he said. “She’ll break into a Broadway song at any moment.”

Divine Word Father Robert Kelly of Techny Towers has visited Mother Antonia twice at La Mesa.

“She just thinks everyone should have smiles on their faces,” Father Kelly said. “She gets people to the dentist, working with dentists to make it possible — just for them to feel loved.”

Mother Antonia doesn’t see herself as sacrificing, because that would imply doing something she didn’t want to do.

“She’s got her peanut butter and jelly and makes sandwiches for people,” Father Kelly said. “‘Anyone can do this,’ she says. She really doesn’t think she’s anything special. She’s a living saint in my mind. She would never want people to say that, though.”

Neither does she want people to wrongly judge those like her beloved prisoners.

“Be against the death penalty,” she advised. “Yes, they deserve it. But thank God, ‘that for your grace I don’t get what I deserve.'”

Copyright (c) 01/02/2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

(Original, slightly longer version published in the Catholic New World newspaper, Archdiocese of Chicago, on 10/28/2007).