Mark Patrick, photo
Father Edward Evanko and his parishioners are in the midst of observing Advent, the lead-up to Christmas.
He’s acted on Broadway, had a reoccurring role on the hit television soap opera, Ryan’s Hope, hosted his own television show on CBC’s Ed Evanko Show and recorded Broadway albums for Capitol, RCA and Destiny Records.
However, Father Edward Danylo Evanko’s biggest role yet, he said, is as a Catholic priest at Richmond’s Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church of The Holy Dormition of the Mother of God.
How does a seasoned actor of four decades go from the bright lights of New York City to heading a small church in Richmond?
The News sat down with the charismatic and young looking 73-year-old Evanko to hear his story.
“I never thought to myself I want to be a priest … it really is a calling,” said Evanko.
His path to religious life began in 1997.
Every Sunday, Evanko attended mass at downtown’s Holy Rosary Cathedral.
“Over a few months, I kept sitting closer and closer to the front pews,” he said. “One Sunday I was sitting right behind Gary Lauk, a lawyer and former MLA (Vancouver Centre).
“He turned to me one day and said ‘should I know you … you can really sing’.”
Evanko went on to say Lauk then asked him to take his spot as a lector, to read the scriptures during Sunday mass.
“For two and a half years I did this and then one day I’m at Gary’s for Easter brunch,” Evanko said. “I was chatting with the associate pastor of Holy Rosary and Archbishop Adam Exner. They asked me about my life story.”
Then out of the blue, added the lifelong bachelor, they asked him if he had ever considered the priesthood.
“They told me you need only say the word and you could be in Rome by this fall,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it and I started to cry … the weight of it hit me.
“Yet, at that moment I knew and I had no control … you are called to be a priest.”
That fall, Evanko left for Italy. He completed his four-year academic and spiritual formation — which is theology studies at a seminary where men go to train to become priests — at the Pontificio Collegio Beda in Rome. He went on to further his divinity studies at universities in both the United States and Canada. He received his Master of theology degree in 2005. He was 66 years old.
Evanko was ordained a Catholic priest that same year. He served at the Archeparchy of Winnipeg for two and a half years before returning to B.C. in 2008 to head his Richmond congregation.
“To go through formation is emotionally and intellectually strenuous, but incredibly rewarding and rich,” he said.
When asked what his struggles are, if any, Evanko paused and said: “As a priest, there are many challenges but many, many more rewards,” he said. “It’s hard to say any one thing that is difficult, but there are enormous rewards, such as being entrusted with people’s lives.
“You learn from them as much as you learn from almost any theology book or textbook.”
His duties are many, including daily liturgies, giving sacraments for the ill and dying, administering reconciliation (confession), and marrying couples and baptizing children.
There was nothing in his childhood to point to his path into the priesthood, he said, other than being brought up Catholic.
“I sometimes didn’t agree with the church’s teachings but I never lost my faith in God,” Evanko said.
Born in Winnipeg to Ukrainian immigrants, Evanko grew up attending a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic church with his parents and two sisters.
“I was raised Catholic, but not strict Catholic,” he said. “I was an altar boy and sang on the choir but I wouldn’t say I was overly religious.”
His mother died when he was 11 and four years later his father remarried a devout Catholic.
Evanko first inkling that the stage was beckoning him was in junior high.
“I was a one-arm toy soldier and I sang and acted … I guess I had a natural talent for it,” said Evanko.
At 17, he went to the University of Alberta, where he received his bachelor of arts.
“Winnipeg was a great town to get into the arts, because in those days you could live in a small town and do a show that aired across the country … you can’t do that anymore,” he said. “After university, I appeared on stage for the summer Rainbow Stage Theatre and on CBC television.”
Soon, the London stage was summoning the young aspiring actor.
“England was the Mecca for theatre and so at 21, I went over ready for an adventure,” he said.
Evanko was accepted at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. (Alumni include Hollywood stars Jeremy Irons, Naomie Harris and the late Pete Postlethwaite).
Evanko spent four years in England, honing his acting skills and appearing with the Stratford Festival, the English Opera, the Welsh National Opera and the BBC Singers.
Then the Big Apple came calling.
His Broadway debut garnered him a Theatre World Award, and later, a New Jersey Drama Critics Award and a Los Angeles Ovation Award nomination. He spent 22 years in New York, as well as eight years in Hollywood, before returning to Canada. Evanko performed at major festivals across the country as well as in the United States, before entering religious life.
Yet, this man of the cloth has managed to marry both his loves.
“Now, I get the best possible scripts to perform, the scriptures,” he said. “They have to be interpreted of course, but the wisdom in the words … they are the best I could ever get my hands on.”
Over the years, he has given dramatic performances of the life of Father Damien, the selfless missionary to the lepers and of the horrific sufferings of Genocide survivors of the Ukraine (1932-1933).
Evanko will hit the stage in a new production, Blessed Nykyta, Bishop and Martyr, which will run in Edmonton on November 4 and in Toronto on November 16.
Evanko heads a congregation of 45 at the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church of The Holy Dormition of the Mother of God on Railway Avenue. The quaint church stays alive through its weekly sales (Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the parish centre behind the church) of homemade perogies, cabbage rolls and borscht soup.
For more information about his upcoming performances, visit www.fatheredward.com.