Can’t take the actor out of the priest

By  Steve Weatherbe, Catholic Register Special
  • September 28, 2011

VANCOUVER - You don’t have to be a Broadway actor to be a good priest, says Fr. Edward Danylo Evanko, pastor of the Dormition of Our Mother of God Church in Richmond.

“But,” he adds, lapsing into a Manhattan Yiddish accent, “it wouldn’t hoit.”

Evanko was an actor on Broadway, as well as in Hollywood, in television and film, for more than 30 years before a seemingly chance conversation at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral pointed him to the priesthood. Once a priest, he thought he had put acting behind him, but he was wrong.

He now performs three one-man shows, mostly in Canada and the United States, but also abroad: Damien by Aldyth Morris, about Fr. Damien of Molokai, the so-called “Leper Priest”; Holodomor: Murder by Starvation, which he wrote, about the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 that killed up to seven million; and Blessed Nykyta, about Canada’s first Ukrainian Catholic bishop, who later died in a Soviet jail.

Evanko was born and raised in Winnipeg, a product of the north Winnipeg ethnic stew that gave rise to many performing artists over the years. A booming tenor, he won a provincial singing contest before going off to England to study theatre.

He returned to Canada to MC a CBC variety show, and then it was on to Broadway. His most lucrative and lasting gig was an ongoing part in the Irish American soap opera Ryan’s Hope.

He never abandoned the faith of his childhood, he said, though sometimes his practice was thin.

“I would confess to my friends that there was always a void somewhere, an emptiness, and I wouldn’t even know what I was feeling.”

A movie of the week assignment took him to Vancouver, and he decided on the spot to move there. Soon he “fell in love with Holy Rosary Cathedral, the liturgy, the choir,” and began reading at the 11 o’clock Sunday Mass.

In 2000, after the Easter Mass, he was chatting with the assistant pastor when the latter asked him if he ever considered the priesthood.

“I thought he was sort of joking, and I said I had always thought I could do it better than the priest.”

But the priest was serious. “He said, ‘No, I’m talking right now, because you only need to say the word and you could be in Rome this fall studying.’

“You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had no idea where this came from. I started to cry and I stopped crying and said, ‘You know something. That is exactly what I must do.’ ”

In Rome, however, a Ukrainian Catholic priest took him to a Ukrainian seminary and he realized that was his calling.

On his first assignment, pastor of 12 parishes in western Manitoba, he got the idea of staging Damien as a fundraiser for a fellow priest whose father had fallen ill after donating a kidney to his son. He raised $4,000 from three performances.

He thought his acting was over again, but parishes began calling and asking him to perform it. Eventually the interest settled down to a steady half-dozen performances a year around North America.

Then a Toronto priest urged him to create a show about the Holodomor in time for the 75th anniversary in 2008. Evanko protested that he didn’t have the time with his 12 far-flung rural parishes, but the other priest promised to do the research.

Evanko was soon showered with articles and first-hand accounts from survivors, all children during the famine, who had watched their brothers, sisters and parents die in front of them. Evanko dramatizes their words in a series of seven scenes, interspersed with Ukrainian folk songs and hymns.

Evanko gives a spiritual message in his plays by presenting the sacrificial heroism of individuals faced with the challenge of suffering, either on an individual scale or on a national scale.

He sees his theatrical work as a “call within a call,” a concept borrowed from Fr. Damien. The Belgian priest uses it to describe his vocation to serve the lepers.

In Evanko’s case, the call is to dramatize those who devote their lives “to lose their lives” in the service of others.

(Weatherbe is a freelance writer in Victoria, B.C.)

This article is part of our Call to Service special feature.

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