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Once-homeless convert sponsors another, one year later

April 3, 2015
Christina Gray

Only a year ago, Michael Riddle, a homeless but recovering drug addict struggling with a mental illness, was sleeping in doorways in the days leading up to his Easter 2014 baptism at St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

This Easter, Riddle will walk up St. Boniface’s main aisle again, this time at the side of a 49-year-old convert, Cathy Goffner, who will be confirmed on April 4.

In the year since his baptism, Riddle, 42, has moved into a residential hotel in North Beach (thanks to the generosity of a Catholic San Francisco reader who responded to an article about him). He has settled into a routine of daily Mass and exercise, long hours of spiritual reading and contemplation of a Franciscan vocation.

He is also Goffner’s co-sponsor, in the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, along with Tim Gallagher, who leads Scripture studies there.

The pair, along with RCIA program leader Philip Danhken, have seen Goffner through a four-year journey of stops and starts that have delayed her entry into the church. In December, the latest: a cancer diagnosis.

“I knew something was wrong with me because I was struggling to get to class,” Goffner told Catholic San Francisco on March 29 after meeting with her sponsors in a room behind the church one week before her confirmation.

Her sponsor, Michael, was there on the day she had surgery.

“Michael held my hand the whole way,” said the Louisiana native, who was raised in the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions.

“I benefited far more than she did,” Riddle said.

The pair share a bond of faith and friendship found through grace and strengthened despite and perhaps because of the personal turmoil that led each to the church.

Goffner said her “happy life” as a wife, mother and library clerk seemed to suddenly implode in 2011 after the oldest of her six grown children died from complications of a tragic accident. The loss strained her 20-year marriage and she and her husband separated and in time moved out of the home they shared.

Goffner, who lived and worked in East Palo Alto at the time, said she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church. She drove past St. Francis of Assisi Church every day and thought about stopping. One day she finally did.

She returned often but left quietly. One morning, Father Lawrence Goode, the church’s pastor to whom she had never spoken, ran after her into the parking lot.

The priest asked Goffner if someone in her family was Catholic. She told him her grandmother on her father’s side had been Catholic. “That’s why you are so drawn here,” Goffner recalled the priest saying. “Your grandmother has very strong prayers. She’s been praying that her granddaughter would become a Catholic.”

Goffner said “that’s when I knew this is where I was supposed to be.” She began attending daily Mass on Father Goode’s advice.

In time she found a job as a gardener tending the tulip gardens in Golden Gate Park and left East Palo Alto for San Francisco. But she struggled to find affordable housing and spent eight months sleeping in her car or on the street before she finally found an apartment on Sixth Street.

“I had never known what it was to go without, to miss a meal,” said Goffner, who began attending daily Mass at St. Boniface Church before her free meals at St. Anthony’s Dining Room nearby. She entered the parish’s RCIA program shortly afterward.

When she became ill a few months ago, Gallagher arranged an anointing of the sick for Goffner with Franciscan Father Tommy King. Gallagher, her sponsors and RCIA leader Danhken all attended.

“I knew everything was going to be okay,” she said, and it appears it is. Goffner’s doctors told her she is cancer-free, though radiation treatments continue until April 20.

Goffner said she already knows she is healed and forgiven.

She said that as she walked through the double doors to the radiation department for the first time, she felt the spirit of Jesus say: “Cathy, by my strength you are healed. You have the scars to prove it, just like I do.”

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