Sr. Gabriela Villela holds a painting of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arriving in Halifax in 1927.

WCR PHOTO | LASHA MORNINGSTAR

Sr. Gabriela Villela holds a painting of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arriving in Halifax in 1927.

May 18, 2015
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

One wonders how a young woman raised on a beautiful coffee plantation in Guatemala would end up a religious sister in Canada.

Indeed, that was not Sister Gabriela Villela's plan. "I wanted to marry and have many children," she said in a recent interview.

The fourth of six children, Villela said all were baptized, "but we never went to church."

Life in the country on the inherited coffee plantation was good.

Parents Maria Cristina and Francisco's gift to their children once they finished high school was to send them away for one year to learn English. When it was Villela's turn, she chose Mount Saint Vincent Academy in Halifax.

Yes, she did learn English and today finds great joy in writing articles in her second language. But she also found work in the business office of the Halifax Infirmary. She stayed there for three years, going home to her family in Guatemala each summer.

While working at the infirmary, Villela witnessed the joyous lives of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of Halifax. She watched the sisters work and was drawn to their ministry of healing the sick and working with the poor.

Still her heart's desire was to marry and have children.

As she became imbued with the sisters' presence and their mission, Villela finally decided to discern her vocation. "I was so attracted to the work they did."

While her father Francisco greatly opposed her choice of religious life, her mother Maria Christina was pleased she was considering joining the Sisters of Charity.

As she went through her formation, Villela was sent to St. Mary's, Ont., to observe kindergarten children for six weeks since it was thought she would be working with children. She took her first vows in 1956 and final vows in 1959.

When the order decided to expand its mission to South and Central America, they sent letters to each bishop in the various countries.

Villela and others visited several countries and eventually the order decided to establish a mission in La Victoria, Chiclayo, Peru.

Sisters came to Villela and asked if she was going to apply to go to Peru. She had not decided. "But I went to bed the night before the deadline for applications, and when I woke up, I went over and typed out an application."

Villela could not say what prompted her to apply, but within hours she received word she was chosen to be one of the four sisters to go to Peru out of the 75 who had applied.

Once there, they lived in a one-room adobe house. They set about going in pairs to visit the people. Chapels were built. The first was dedicated to John XXIII, the second to Christ Light of the World.

As the people's faith grew, more chapels were built in the huge district.

After seven years in Peru, the sister was invited to work in a Spanish-speaking community in New York where she worked for three years.

Villela's hunger to learn prompted the order to send her to Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax where she earned a degree in religious studies and psychology. She went on to earn a master's degree in pastoral care of the family at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

One time on her journeys, she met Father Duncan MacDonnell in an airport in Peru who said, "Come to Edmonton."

After another card came from MacDonnell who wrote, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. We will be waiting for you," Villela gave in and came to Edmonton in 1974.

She worked with three priests in St. Andrew's Parish, serving as a pastoral assistant involved in RCIA, sacramental and other parish work. "My greatest strength was in visiting, and not all of them were churchgoers."

In 1990 she became director of the Providence Renewal Centre for three years. Many moves followed – more parish work in Edmonton, then to Nova Scotia and on to Quebec.

In 1994, she was in Halifax where she was made a recording secretary. She shook her head at the memory. "It was hard. I wasn't good at the computer."

After two years, the wise superior general understood when Villela would not renew her contract, saying "You are miserable. You are a people person."

STUDENT SERVICE PROGRAM

Using her solid university education, the impassioned sister developed a service program for Grade 11 students called the Seton Way of Service as an alternative to religious studies.

She took her program to Archbishop MacDonald High School and Jean Forest Academy in Edmonton.

The students visited a variety of places. At the Elves School for handicapped children, they came to see the child instead of the handicap. By making sandwiches for Sunday lunch for the homeless, they visited and saw the person instead of his homeless label. They also visited a seniors' home and chased away the elders' loneliness, and played with children in a day care.

"You could just see the students' transformation," said Villela, her face wreathed in smiles.

REMEBERING PERU

She never forgot Peru though. And in 2006 she invited interested university students to become part of her Peru Seton Way Group.

"They had to come to a weekly meeting (at her home) and learn about the culture, and to speak basic Spanish. It was a real commitment," explained Villela. More importantly, the students' mission was to "get to know the people."

The team targets different areas of need on each trip to Peru such as providing school uniforms and shoes, bringing in an eye specialist – "Out of 60 children, 30 needed glasses" – and bringing in a doctor to provide preventive health care.

The doctor informed mothers of conditions in their children such as anemia.

DENTAL SUPPLIES

The Seton Way program at Jean Forest Leadership Academy donated 35 packets of dental supplies plus instructions in Spanish on proper teeth brushing. The school's recycle program brings in about $100 a month to fund the Peru projects.

Other parishes, schools and people in Edmonton have given gifts of money and talent to the Peruvian community.

The Peruvian mothers are taught such basics as cooking and budgeting. "They came to us and asked to be taught 'high class cooking' which means they could find work in the city hotels," explained Villela.

And of her own future?

The lively sister paused, then replied she will take her program to the Jean Forest Academy – "But only when I am invited." She may also return to Peru every two years and support the community's changing needs.

Another pause and she said firmly, "I'll do what I need to do. I live one day at a time."