Our Lady of the Buses

Sonia Goodner, jail chaplain.

By John Lomax August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Charles Ford

Seated in her parlor in Jacinto City, a rosary threaded through her careworn fingers, her eyes brimming with tears, Sonia Tramontano Goodner recalls the worst hour of her life. 

“The saddest memory I have was the day I was supposed to receive the veil,” she says. It was 1941, and she was then in the Little Sisters of the Assumption convent in German-occupied France, far from her native Naples. “I was supposed to cut my ponytail, and I wanted to give my mother the hair. But then Mother Superior says, ‘I am not going to give you the veil. I want you to go back out into the world.’”

So out into the world she went—to Texas, improbably—where for the past 55 years, the petite Sonia has served as a jail chaplain, riding buses to both the Harris County Jail and Huntsville prisons, bringing with her Bibles, Catholic literature, hope for a better life, and unconditional love. Her good works have not gone unnoticed. Inmates and employees of the prison system call her Saint Sonia. Pope John Paul II awarded her the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice medal, the greatest accolade the Church bestows on a layperson, and in 2010, the secular world also took note, giving Goodner a Jefferson Award, the nation’s highest honor for charitable volunteers. “I didn’t even know who Jefferson was,” she laughs.

How far she’s come from those days as a heartbroken postulant, fleeing a French convent and returning to her father’s tailor shop in Naples. “I cried and cried—my sister asked me if I was trying to build a river between Paris and Rome,” she says.

Allied bombs rained down on her hometown. The Neapolitans rose up against the Germans, and in 1943 the city was liberated by the British and Americans. Soon Sonia had an American suitor, Sergeant Tholen Goodner. “He asked me to marry him, and I said no because he wasn’t a Catholic. He said, ‘I’ll be a Catholic and everything.’ Then I think maybe this is God’s will, He wants me to help him become a Christian. He had no religion, nothing. So that was the reason I married him—just for the love of God I married him and came to this country.”

She arrived in Houston in the late ’40s as a war bride. Sonia’s mother-in-law was not fond of the union. “She never called me by the name,” she laughs. “Just ‘Hey you.’ And I don’t think ‘you’ was a compliment.” Sonia taught herself English, learning the language “like a papávall’,” she says. “What is the word for the bird that talks?” (Sonia’s rich Neapolitan accent is a joy to hear. She says the inmates love to listen to her, whether in English, Italian, French, or German, all of which she can speak to varying degrees.) 

Her husband didn’t allow her to drive, so Sonia became adept at navigating Houston’s public transport. A lonely and homesick Sonia found solace in the church. About the only thing postwar Houston had in common with Naples was the Latin mass, which was exactly the same in East End’s Blessed Sacrament church as it was at the Duomo di Napoli. 

“And then I had the three treasures,” she smiles, referring to her daughters Rita, Maria, and Anna. “They are my life. I love them so much, and now I’m getting olden.” Her eyes again fill with tears. “My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, they are my life, and sometimes I feel guilty because I think that I love them more than I do God.”

That love extends to those beyond her family. Sonia even loves the German soldiers who ordered all of the Little Sisters of the Assumption out of their dormitories and into the basement of the convent at gunpoint. She prefers to remember that they shared their rations. “They are human beings too. All of us!” 

And, of course, she loves the men and women she meets behind bars. “When I see them, they are just like my daughters,” she says. “When I see them I see my blood.”

Goodner first learned of her future vocation from a nun, the sister of a priest at Blessed Sacrament, who also paid jailhouse visits at a time when inmates typically froze in winter, baked in summer, and ate terrible food all year long. The priest asked Sonia to help his sister bring inmates ice, blankets, and fruit and vegetables from the old downtown Farmers Market. Thus began an odyssey that’s continued for more than a half-century. Goodner still rides the MetroLift in from Jacinto City every Wednesday morning.

Sonia’s serenity and cheer attest to how her work has fed her soul, but there have been worldly benefits too. One day she found herself eight dollars short at a Wal-Mart till. The checker didn’t even blink. “She gave me a deep look, put her hands in her pocket, and gave me eight dollars,” laughs Goodner. “She said ‘You don’t know me, but I know you.’ That happens many times.” Another day, she found herself on the receiving end of hugs and kisses from an unfamiliar prison worker. “Do you remember me?” the woman asked. “Because I remember you. I was an inmate.” 

“And now she’s an assistant chaplain just like me!” Goodner exclaims. “Another one got out, went to convent, and became a nun. Josephine. I remember that name only. Some they do go to the right track, and some they don’t.” 

But one reward that she didn’t get to enjoy means more to her than the ones she did. Not long ago, she received a letter signed by Harris County inmates. “With their own money, they wanted to fix me a dinner,” Goodner says. “I could sit and eat with them, and they would pay for it.” She brought it to the attention of Father Ron Cloutier, supervisor of the jail’s Catholic ministries. Cloutier took the request to Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who nixed it. “But I still have the letter,” she says.

For Saint Sonia, it’s the thought that counts. 

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