Who is the real 'Sister Stella L.'?

Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo - Philstar.com
Who is the real 'Sister Stella L.'?

From left: A scene from "Sister Stella L." starring Vilma Santos, and the militant nun from which the character was based on, Sr. Mary Pilar Verzosa. | Photo from Pro-Life Philippines

MANILA, Philippines — During the 40th Gawad Urian Awards night on Thursday in ABS-CBN, “Star for All Seasons” Vilma Santos was presented the Natatanging Gawad Urian Lifetime Achievement Award by her former on-screen partner, Christopher de Leon.

According to the awards’ organizers, Vilma was chosen not only for having eight Best Actress Awards, the most in Urian history.

As Bienvenido Lumbera of Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino explained, Vilma was picked “dahil sa kanyang husay at galing sa pagganap na umani ng parangal mula sa lahat ng mga organisasyong pampelikula na nagbibigay ng gawad.”

“Taglay n’ya ang ganda at talino ng artistang hinahangaan ng marami sa publiko, subalit namumukod s’yang higit hindi lamang dahil sa pisikal n’yang katangian, ngunit dahil sa kanyang kabatiran at tagos-kaluluwang pagganap sa kanyang bawat katauhang binigyang-buhay sa pelikula,” Lumbera expounded in a video tribute.

In the same video tribute, Vilma’s most memorable movies and movie lines were presented in a montage. Among those is “Sister Stella L.,” a masterpiece by Mike De Leon about a nun fighting against government oppression and injustices.

The movie, released in 1984, dominated the Urian Awards that same year by bagging almost all honors, including Best Picture for Regal Films; Best Screenplay by Jose F. Lacaba, Jose Almojuela, and Mike de Leon; Best Actor for Jay Ilagan; Best Director for Mike de Leon; Best Supporting Actress for Laurice Guillen; and of course, Best Actress for Vilma.

According to Vilma, “Nu’ng ginawa ko po ‘yung Sister Stella L., wala naman po akong kinalaman sa bayan.”

But the role became dear to her because besides that it stands out from the usual mother roles she did through the years, in here, she portrayed the role of a very silent but liberated nun. “And of course, plus it’s my first time with Mike De Leon!” she said.

As a young journalist fresh out of college, one of this writer’s first jobs was as a former public relations officer of non-government organization Pro-Life Philippines. This writer then had a chance to ask her former boss and the organization’s founder, Sr. Mary Pilar Verzosa, if rumors were true that she is the real Sister Stella L.

Sister Pilar, as we called her, admitted to be the nun from which one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Jose Lacaba, based the movie’s character played by Vilma.

According to Sister Pilar, she was once arrested during martial law in the ‘70s as an alleged leader of a guerilla army hiding by the name Kumander Laura. She told her story to her cell mate, Lacaba.

Years after they were released, Lacaba reportedly told Sister Pilar that she was his inspiration for co-writing Sister Stella L's character.

Sister Pilar placed number one in the nursing board exams, but she left being a nurse and her pilot boyfriend, who never married, she told this writer, to be of service to God and His people. She eventually became a part of the congregation Good Shepherd Sisters.

Since she founded Pro-Life Philippines in 1975, she actively reached out to families, especially in depressed areas, through her TV appearances, radio programs, and books about her advocacy against abortion, premarital sex, and death penalty, among others.

But also during the Martial Law years, she and Sr. Zenaida Pineda were charged with being a commander of the National People’s Army, allegedly responsible for murdering military informers in Lobo, Batangas. She was eventually given conditional release.

Recently, she testified about the presence of human rights abuses during martial law years.

Sister Pilar died of brain aneurysm in 2012. She was 67 years old. But thanks to movies like “Sister Stella L.” and award-giving bodies like Urian that pay tribute to such movies, memories and struggles of unsung martial law heroes like her will not go for naught.

As Vilma’s famous line in the movie says, “Ako ay isang Kristyano! At bilang isang Kristyano, alam ko at alam nating lahat na tayo’y nasa tama!”

“Sa pagdaan ng panahon, isa lang ang hindi nagbabago. Ito ‘yung passion ng mga tao sa pelikula para lumikha, sumulat, or umarte sa pinilakang tabing. Kaya po hanggang ngayon, artista pa rin ako,” said Vilma, who offered her award to everyone that formed her 50-years-and-counting showbiz career, including her on-screen arch rival, Nora Aunor, and those from which her award-winning characters were based, real people like the true Sister Stella L, Sister Pilar.

Vilma Santos as Sister Stella L (left) and the real Sister Stella L, Sr. Mary Pilar Versoza (right)


Vilma Santos now - as she receives her Lifetime Achievement Award from Urian     Philstar.com/Efigenio Christopher Toledo IV


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