Giving light in the darkness: Correctional Ministries honors Sonia Goodner, long-time volunteer

March 28, 2017

HOUSTON — Sonia Goodner received news December 2016 she didn’t like: She had to “retire” from being a jail chaplain.

At 92 years old, Goodner had been serving the inmates around the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston for more than 50 years.

“I want to go back,” Goodner said. “I miss them.”

On March 7, at the annual retreat of the Office of Correctional Ministries at Holy Name Retreat Center, all the staff honored Goodner for the many years of ministering to the men and women incarcerated in the state prisons and Harris County Jail.

Father Ron Cloutier, director of the Office of Correctional Ministries, said that when he met Goodner in April 1979 the conditions of the jail were horrendous.

“In those days the Harris County Jail was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Justice Department,” he said, adding there was no air conditioning, there were 350 men in a tank that could hold only 80, two toilets that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and the men slept on the steel tables that they would later eat on. The conditions for the women weren’t much better. Goodner, along with two women from the Legion of Mary, handed underwear to the women as well as ice, blankets and anything they needed to take care of their hygiene.

Father Coultier said Goodner would walk more than a mile to take the MetroLift, which would take her to the jail. While there, Goodner would also pray and sing with the women along with bringing Bibles and Catholic literature.

“Sonia, in so many ways, was a saint to the women,” he said. “They referred to her as ‘Santa Sonia’ or ‘Momma.’”

Father Coultier set the record straight: Goodner did not retire. After roughly a year of consideration and thought, he told her she needed to retire as he was concerned for her health.

“She did not agree with that. She didn’t like what I said,” he admitted. “Tonight when I hugged her I asked her, ‘have you forgiven me yet?’ and she said, ‘I’ll try.’”

A native of Naples, Italy, Goodner felt she was called to be a nun. The Mother Superior, however, told her to go back out into the world. When war ravaged her town, she met American Sergeant Tholen Goodner and came to America. Arriving in Houston during the 1940s, Goodner taught herself English and had three daughters, Rita, Maria and Anna.

When a priest asked her to help his sister — a sister at Blessed Sacrament — with her jailhouse visits, what followed was more than half-century worth of giving hope to those that no longer had it.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza is grateful for all of the work Goodner has done for the inmates, giving them hope and unconditional love.

“You brought love into their lives, which some of them probably never had,” he said. “You brought light into their darkness. You even gave them hope when likely they had no hope. In so many ways, you made them feel truly human.”

Her efforts did not go unnoticed outside of the Archdiocese. Pope John Paul II awarded her the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice medal, the greatest accolade the Church bestows on a layperson. And in 2010, Goodner was awarded the Jefferson Award, the nation’s highest honor for charitable volunteers.

“You were the Church for those people,” Archbishop Fiorenza said. “You were an outstanding example of what Jesus would want us all to do for those in jail.”