Holy Role-er

from the Winnipeg Free Press
Posted By Kevin Prokosh
Updated: April 8, 2007

The man parishioners know as Father Edward used to read scripts, not scripture

It was six years ago today at an Easter brunch that actor/singer Edward Evanko was offered a new role that promised greater glory than his 1969 Broadway debut.

After reading the scriptures at Vancouver's Holy Rosary Cathedral, the former Winnipegger was chatting with the associate pastor, who suddenly asked him, "Have you ever thought of the priesthood?"

Of course, as a Winnipeg altar boy at Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church on Boyd Street, the notion naturally had entered his head but got lost in the deluge of compliments he was receiving for his sweet tenor voice.

"No, I mean now," Evanko recalls the priest saying. "You know, you only need say the word and you could be in Rome this fall studying for the priesthood."

The promising vocalist -- whom Decca Records was once gung-ho to make the next Tom Jones -- began to weep, taken aback at the unexpected and preposterous proposal.

"Then I stopped and said, 'That's exactly what I must do,'" Evanko says. "He made me aware of something I wasn't aware of myself. He opened this huge door and the light shone in."

Just like that, he exchanged vocations -- man of the theatre had become man of the cloth.

At 68, Evanko ministers to four large rural parishes and eight mission parishes out of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Rossburn, a farming village of 600 in western Manitoba. He was ordained at Blessed Virgin Mary -- where he had been baptized -- on Aug. 6, 2005, on the feast of Christ's transfiguration, a day Evanko chose for his own metamorphosis.

His script is now the Bible and the sound of applause has faded.

"When I do a homily and I see people nodding and smiling, lights going on over their heads, that's very loud applause for me," he says, recently over the telephone from his parish office. "That's much louder than I ever got in the theatre."

His life has certainly imitated his art, says Evanko, who prefers to be called Father Edward to Father Ed, a name he claims sounds too much like a TV sitcom.

As a 17-year-old in 1956 he won the Alma Wynne Memorial Trophy for junior vocalists at the Manitoba Music Competition on the strength of his stirring rendition of The Lord is My Shepherd. His Good Friday TV special on CBC in 1971 was called The Ed Evanko Gospel Special. Evanko's return to the Manitoba Theatre Centre after almost two decades was in Tsymbaly, a comic drama in which he first played a Ukrainian priest.

Evanko, who grew up on Mountain Avenue, is back in Winnipeg on Thursday and can keep his collar on to perform Damien, an 80-minute one-man show about a Belgian clergyman who served the lepers of Hawaii. His return to the stage was inspired when his predecessor in Rossburn was in need of a costly kidney transplant and Evanko wanted to help financially.

His first thought was to revive Love Letters -- a piece he performed in 1997 -- but he deemed it too racy for a priest. When he found Aldyth Morris's script about Father Damien, he had his fundraising vehicle.

"It offers an amazing lesson in what a vocation means," says Evanko, who was a member of the Winnipeg Boys Choir with Len Cariou, Manitoba's only Tony Award winner. "I thought I would do Damien once or twice and raise a bit of money as an act of support. Then I got a rash of invites."

Since last March he has performed Damien in Rome, London, Ottawa, Vancouver and Regina, with dates in Washington, D.C., and Australia upcoming.

"I still love acting," says Evanko, who has always looked younger than his age. "I miss the camaraderie of working with other people. I don't miss show business."

If the priesthood was his destiny, God certainly works in mysterious ways.

For a while in the late '60s, it looked as if Evanko was on the road to musical stardom. Three years after appearing in The Fantasticks at MTC, he made his Broadway bow in Canterbury Tales, for which he won an award as Broadway's most promising performer and attracted an American fan club.

item4Then pop stardom seemed to be his future after his hit single, Let Her Go, prompted Decca Records to sign him with a large advance in the early '70s. He was shipped to England with a plan to groom him as the new Engelbert Humperdinck or the Canadian Tom Jones.

"It was not my time," the University of Manitoba graduate remembers. "If it was, I'd have black shoe polish in my hair today and be singing It's Not Unusual in a lounge somewhere. God was protecting me from that."

Television then came calling, and in 1976-77 he played singing surgeon Alex McLean in the soap opera Ryan's Hope. Many guests spots and soap operas followed during his almost three decades living in New York and Los Angeles.

He followed the work to Vancouver, where he settled in the late '90s. He always made it back to Winnipeg, performing with all the major arts companies. One of his last successes for the stage was in Old Wicked Songs at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1999. Just before he received his new calling, he appeared in A Little Night Music for Dry Cold Productions.

"It's a mystery why it all happens this way," he says. "After all those roles I've played, I'm probably more myself than I've ever been. "