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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Former veterinarian chooses a life of prayer and service"

From The Catholic Sentinel

By Ed Langlois
Sr. Maria Gabriel Standfield shares a laugh with Srs. Barbara and Rose Marie at Our Lady of Peace.Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
When she was a hard-working veterinarian, Victoria Standfield commuted at all hours between Salem and Tigard. After midnight on April 1, 1997, she fell asleep at the wheel.

Her car careened off the road and clipped a signpost. The windshield shattered. Glass flew everywhere.

But she walked away without a scratch. Later, she found shards all over — even directly behind where she was sitting.

What’s the deal? she thought.

Now known as Sister Maria Gabriel, she sees the event as filled with meaning. For her, God sweats the details, loving us mightily in everyday life.

When Sister Gabriel, 43, professed lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience last month at Our Lady of Peace Retreat House, 300 people came.

The crowd was too much for the chapel, so the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows converted the large dining room and meeting hall into a church.

Sister Gabriel feels a lot of support, worldly and other-worldly. She looks at religious life as an extension of the call of baptism, something all Christians inherit.

“It’s about living the life of Christ,” she sums up.

She is the second of three daughters born to a 30-year U.S. Army veteran and the woman with whom he fell in love when he was stationed in Germany during the Cold War in the 1960s.

Sister Gabriel (her parents sometimes slip up and call her Victoria), was born at Fort Ord, Calif. Charles and Helga Standfield are cradle Catholics. He was educated by nuns in Pensacola, Fla. and she grew up in Germany.

Helga taught preschool and Charles, even after he left the Army, worked on military transportation contracts.

The family bounced around as Army families do — California, Massachusetts, Colorado and back to Germany.

In fifth grade, Victoria went on a field trip to the University of California at Davis. The idea grew in her — she wanted to be a veterinarian.

A little later, when she was 12, she heard a missionary nun serving in Africa give a slide show on the ministry. The photos were so bright and colorful; that seemed like a good and noble life. She spent hours poring over Maryknoll magazine.

Sister Gabriel, who even then professed a belief in angels, gradated from high school in Wiesbaden. She sang in church choirs and was open about her faith in Jesus.

Not one to rush into things, she pursued the more standard course, getting a college degree in biology and heading to veterinary school at Davis.

One day, doing a rotation on animal heart disease, three nuns brought their beloved German shepherd into the university clinic. Young Dr. Standfield helped them and took careful note of them and their ways.

She graduated from veterinary school in 1993 and the next year moved to Salem to work. She became a member of St. Joseph Parish and felt her spiritual life intensify there.

As time went by, she felt called to more intense discipleship and considered religious life seriously.

By 1996, she was attending vocations retreats, including one at Our Lady of Peace. She admired the contentedness at the place and learned that this was the home of the same community of fascinating women who had brought their ailing dog to her years before in California.

Before long, she picked up a church magazine and ran across an advertisement. It showed a map of the U.S. and a map of China with a crucifix between. It said, “In Christ there is no east or west.” The words and image, especially the crucifix, caused her heart to thump. It was an appeal for vocations from the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows, which ministers in China and the U.S. and has members from both hemispheres.

While working as a veterinarian, she began joining the sisters for prayer and fun. She felt at home.

Her spiritual director, a chaplain at Fort Ord named Father Michael Drury had become a family friend years before. He asked her candid questions, wanting her to be under no illusions about religious life.

“I feel that she made a mature decision,” says Father Drury, a priest of the Diocese of Helena now serving in Montana. “I see her happiness. That is what makes me feel good.”

She read about St. Bernadette Soubirous and felt a kinship with her, as well as with St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Faustina Kowalska.

She was accepted into the Franciscans in 1999. After a pilgrimage to Europe, which included a stay at Assisi, she entered formation.

Her German relatives were a bit shocked. They said she was “crazy” but wished her luck.

For her father, the life change has taken some getting used to. A practical man, he felt good about her veterinarian career.

“She was making good money and she gave all that up,” says Charles, who now lives with Helga in Marina, Calif. “She just gave everything away. God must have called her.”

But he realizes that he is one of the tools God used to get to his daughter. He would often talk about the Sisters who taught him, using words of great admiration and affection.

Formation had its ups and downs. It was a thrill at first. Then came everyday life. But as she’s progressed, Sister Gabriel’s commitment and devotion have deepened.

“The way it has deepened for me is for me to remain docile at the times when the life is not so exciting,” she explains. “If you are open to gifts, you can be sustained and find joy in those times.”

Over the years, the Sisters get to know each other’s glories and foibles, like any family. Only then, Sister Gabriel says, can someone make a valid life commitment. She is delighted with her community. And she will likely get to know them all. There are 23 Sisters in the U.S. and 35 worldwide.

Sister Anne Marie Warren, superior of the Portland community, says she admires and appreciates Sister Gabriel’s honesty and enthusiasm. Both qualities have been great gifts to the community.

“Sister Maria Gabriel has a deep devotion to prayer,” Sister Anne Marie says. “Only if you build a relationship with Jesus can you sustain yourself in the hard times.”

Sister Gabriel has tended the frail and sick sisters, running the infirmary. She also leads the Franciscan Girls Club, helping girls grow in knowledge of the faith. She has traveled to the Sisters’ house in Gallup, New Mexico, where they work with girls who have had troubled lives. On occasion, she still practices as a veterinarian, specializing in small animal medicine.

Sister Gabriel, a trained scientist, has kept up on some current theory. Researchers say more and more that everything is linked by webs of influence. Energy waves tends to sweep past all matter, affecting it in parallel ways.

She’s not surprised. In her language, she sees that as one more movement of the hand of God.


mgibson said...

Sorry to pop in and toot my own horn, but I am also, God willing, entering religious life on June 11 with the Benedictines of Mary! Our local paper did a story (online here) and info is also on my blog here.

In particular, I have a large amount of educational debt that needs to be cleared before I can enter (I am working with the Laboure Society) so any support you can provide, dear readers, would be greatly appreciated - prayers especially!! Three months is not that far away now!

Brad Watkins said...


Congratulations and thank you for the links and the information. I will certainly keep you in my prayers and have already posted the article and a link to your blog. Hopefully this will help get the word out, especially in regards to reducing your debt.

In Christ,