RichmondReview1The Richmond Review, December 10, 2009

A Ukrainian Christmas

By Matthew Hoekstra

With a sheaf of wheat and a 12-course meal, Ukrainian-Canadians welcome the birth of Christ

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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

BCCatholicB.C. Catholic, September 7, 2009

40 Years and Actor/Singer, now a Priest

By Laureen McMahon

When Pope Benedict XVI canonizes Blessed Damien of Molokai on Oct. 11 in Rome, the hearts of many around the world will rejoice, especially in Hawaii where the Belgian-born missionary lived out his extraordinary life of service to castaway lepers.

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B.C. Catholic file photo

“It took me 50 years to finally come to the priesthood,” says Father Danylo Evanko, pastor of a Ukrainian Catholic parish in Richmond, with a grin. He began studying to be a Latin-rite priest, then after awhile, “began to realize that I am, deep in my heart and soul, Ukrainian Catholic.”

Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu, where Father Damien was ordained in 1864, will hold celebrations including evening prayer vigils. Eight former leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) patients living in Kalaupapa on Molokai will be among over 500 island residents travelling to Rome.

The hearts of parishioners at Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Richmond, B.C., are also stirred. Father Edward Danylo Evanko, their pastor, will reprise his acclaimed performance of Aldyth Morris’s one-act play Damien at the request of the king and queen and the prime minister of Belgium, who are to be guests of the Pope for the canonization.

Father Damien was born Joseph de Veuster in Tremeloo, Belgium, in 1840 and joined the Contemplative Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1859. In 1864 he was on board a ship bound for Hawaii with a group of lepers. After his ordination in Honolulu he volunteered to care for those suffering from the terrible affliction.

In the 16 years before the disease took his life in 1889 at the age of 49, Father Damien built six chapels and a home for boys and later one for girls. When it came to light that his life had been one of extraordinary sacrifice, his body, which was found to be incorrupt, was exhumed and returned to Louvain, Belgium.

In 1995 he was beatified. In 2008 the way was cleared for canonization after it was accepted that prayers to the heroic missionary had resulted in the cure of the lung cancer of a woman in Honolulu.

Father Evanko has performed Damien in Canada and throughout the world since his ordination just four years ago, and in several parishes in the Vancouver Archdiocese since coming here in 2008.

During his 40 year career the actor/singer trod the boards in London’s West End, appeared in plays and musicals on Broadway in New York, and acted at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.

He sees one parallel between himself and Father Damien.

“No one thought he was cut out to be a priest, and it took me 50 years to finally come to the priesthood,” he said with a grin as he sat down to chat with The B.C. Catholic in the icon-adorned Byzantine sanctuary on Railway Avenue in Richmond where the Divine Liturgy (Holy Sacrifice of the Mass) is offered in both Ukrainian and English.

Father Evanko began performing Damien as a way to help a family whose son needed a kidney transplant.

“I love the story, which is beautiful, heartfelt, and character-driven; plus it is simple to stage,” he said.

The Winnipeg native was drawn to the performing arts at an early age. He recalls being fascinated with the “wonderful voice” of the priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Church he attended with his family.

“I remember thinking I could do that!” he said, smiling.

Acting was his first love, however, and he left the prairies to train at the Old Vic Theatre School in England. This led to touring with theatrical companies, and to New York and Stratford, where he was cast with many well-known performers.

“I never wanted to be rich or famous. I enjoyed acting as a form of expression, of communication, and found it immensely satisfying and interesting,” he said.

He frequently worked in television and film, and it was while working on a movie in Vancouver about eight years ago that his life changed forever.

“I was attending Divine Liturgy at Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary (St. Mary’s Ukrainian Church), and Mass at Holy Rosary Cathedral which, was convenient to where I was living.” A casual conversation with a cathedral priest turned serious when it was suggested he consider the priesthood.

“‘You know,’ the priest told me, ‘by next fall you could be studying in Rome!’” said Father Evanko. “I felt like I had been hit with a thunderbolt. I even started to cry. From then on it was Mass everyday and a growing love for the Scriptures. No one told me to do anything. It was all coming from inside.”

Vancouver Archbishop (now Emeritus) Adam Exner, OMI, approved his candidacy, and in the fall, he entered the Pontifical Beda College in Rome. He was 62.

Before leaving he spoke with Archeparch Emeritus Severian Yakymyshyn, OSBM, of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy (Diocese) of New Westminster. “He was surprised that I was willing to give up my acting career,” said Father Evanko, “but he gave me his blessing.”

There were a few twists and turns yet to come.

“The Ukrainian Catholic Church had become very ‘Latinized,’ and I wasn’t really sure of the differences between us and the Roman rite when I began studying. After awhile I began to realize that I am, deep in my heart and soul, Ukrainian Catholic. The Ukrainian Church is where I belong.”

He was invited to a Ukrainian Basilian Fathers House of Studies in Rome to sing with the priests and became more and more sure of where he was being called. He went on a retreat to Ottawa’s Holy Spirit Seminary, the major Ukrainian Catholic Church seminary, and was strongly drawn to the community. He was accepted as a candidate for priesthood in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and, after completing studies, was ordained to the diaconate and to the priesthood in the church where he grew up in Winnipeg.

He was assigned to serve 12 parishes in northern Manitoba for over two years, then transferred to Richmond in January 2008.

Father Evanko had other things on his mind this summer besides his trip to Rome, including the 60th anniversary of his parish, which was celebrated on Aug. 15 with many special guests, including New Westminster Eparch Ken Nowakowski and Eparch Emeritus Yakymyshyn.

Now that the time is approaching, is he excited about performing Damien for the canonization?

“It seems like a dream, but then I remember that God has had this in mind all along. When I first received the script from a friend in Stratford I realized it was a perfect memory piece requiring just a chair, a microphone, and lights on my face so people can see the emotion. I’ve even taken it to the Ukraine where I also act in Be Well and Prosper, My Beloved Ukraine, a play based on survivors’ accounts of devastation during the Great Famine in Eastern Ukraine when it was dominated by the Soviet Union.”

On Oct. 7 he will perform for a select group at the Belgian ambassador’s private residence, which will be the second time that the Belgian king and queen have seen Damien. On Oct. 11 an audience of 700 will gather at a church near St. Peter’s where Father Evanko will again perform. He doesn’t yet know if the Pope will attend.

“It’s a busy day for him, and we’ll just have to see.”