From the Stage to the Altar
Broadway actor-turned-priest dramatizes St. Damien and Ukrainian famine
Father Edward Danylo Evanko was ordained a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 2005 after a 40-year career as a supporting actor on Broadway, television and film in the U.S. and Canada.
Shortly after ordination, he started performing one-man plays, first Damien, about the recently-canonized “leper priest,” by Aldyth Morris, and then two of his own creation, Holodomor: Murder by Starvation, about the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, and Blessed Nykyta, about Canada’s first Ukrainian Catholic bishop who was murdered by Josef Stalin. Father Evanko has performed these plays in the United States, Canada and Europe.
He is pastor of the Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Parish in Richmond, British Columbia. Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe spoke with Father Evanko about combining the arts and the priesthood and about maintaining faith in the face of great suffering.
Describe your childhood and your faith.
Well, I was raised a Ukrainian Catholic in Winnipeg [Manitoba], where it was no big deal. In my area of north Winnipeg it was sort of Isn’t everyone? It was a real melting pot. There were Germans, Poles, a huge Jewish community, and we had guts, the chutzpah; our teachers, who were mainly British, gave us the discipline. It was very benign — all the benefits of a Canadian education with the kind of lifeblood of our European background; a lot of artists, not high art, but performers, comedians, the David Steinbergs, who flooded the world with their talents.
So, it was not so big a leap from Winnipeg to Broadway?
I never thought it of it as Oh God, I’m on Broadway. You just kind of find yourself there and think, Well, I’ve just got to be as good as I can be. It was a thrill, of course. I never knew where it would lead me. And look where I am now: in a field that would seem to be worlds away from where I started. But, in some ways, I’m grateful that I have, how can I put it, the skills that I have. I mean, you don’t have to be a Broadway actor to be effective at being a priest, but, as we say, “It wouldn’t hoit.”
And through all this time on Broadway and later in Los Angeles, did you maintain your faith or allegiance, at least?
Allegiance. That’s a good way to put it. There were times when I wasn’t maybe as active at practicing my faith, but there would always be — and I would confess this to my friends — there was a kind of a void somewhere, an emptiness somewhere, and I wouldn’t even know what it was, that I was feeling empty about, until I really started coming to terms with my faith.
How did you decide finally to become a priest?
What happened was this: I lived in the West End [of Vancouver]. I was quite close to Holy Rosary Cathedral and fell in love with the cathedral, with the music, the choir, the organ.
It had many, many Masses, so I could attend, as a busy actor, when I was free. I was asked to read the Scriptures at the high Mass at 11 o’clock on Sundays. And then a couple of years later, I was at a gathering of parishioners after the Easter Sunday 11 o’clock Mass, having a chat with the associate pastor, who asked, “Had I ever thought about the priesthood?” And I thought we were sort of joking. And I said, “I always thought I could do it better than the priest when I was an altar server.”
He said, “No, I’m talking right now, because you only need say the word and you could be in Rome this fall studying for the priesthood, if you wished.”
Well, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. It just pulled the rug out from under my feet. I had no idea where this came from. I started to cry, first of all, and I stopped crying and said, “You know something: That is exactly what I must do.” I didn’t say, “Give me time to think about.” That was it, and I’ve never thought again: Is this the right thing? The only change came with Rome: being made aware my call was to the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
How did that come about?
Here I am in Rome, at a place called the Collegio Pontificio Beda; everything was in English. I met a Ukrainian Catholic priest, and he introduced me to the Basilian House of Studies for the Basilian order of priests in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It wasn’t until I started singing with the brothers and the priests and the seminarians that I thought, Oh, my goodness, I’m not a Roman Catholic, you know that?
What are the differences? In a sense, it doesn’t matter, and, in a sense, it matters very much.
Well, it does. Theologically we are identical. Your Mass and our Divine Liturgy: exactly the same things happen, maybe at different times, maybe with slightly different verbiage. But our Divine Liturgy is the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, who was a bishop of Constantinople, and there is a different emphasis on, how can I put it — what you call the sacraments, we call the mysteries. It’s not better or worse. More emphasis on the inexplicables of what we believe in.
Has your career always been musical?
Not always, but often. I started with music. I started on Broadway with a musical. The play Damien is written by someone else, an American, Aldyth Morris, so I can’t do a lot of music in it. But the second play, Holodomor, based on the Great Famine, I put it together; it’s a series of eyewitness reports from young people who survived this horrendous winter of 1932-33. That’s what I put together in this play. The Holodomor was a man-made famine, man-made in the sense that Stalin dictated this to happen to collectivize the farms and to get rid of the Ukrainian peasantry. Anyway, it happened by chance that one of the stories just seemed to dictate a song to me, a Ukrainian song, and then, one after another, hymns and songs just seemed to come to me. I was always told with musicals that there is dialogue, and when you can no longer speak, you have to go into song: It raises the whole emotional temperature.
When you say ‘can no longer speak,’ do you mean: words fail? I would think that would apply very much to the Holodomor.
Very much so, very much so. There were times when it got so moving or sad, you had to go into singing. Words could just be too grim; the experience might be unbearable.
That’s why I was relieved to find one of the episodes is comedic. That’s why in a Shakespearian play when something really tragic happens it’s almost always followed by the entrance of this crew of crazies, the rustics, the roustabouts, where everything kind of turns topsy-turvy. In Holodomor I found a story about an old man who went in this village from door to door with his little gray horse collecting the bodies of the dead, and for each body he collected, he got half a loaf of bread; this was his job. So, he gets to one house, and the wife is dead, and it’s someone he was very fond of and indeed wanted to marry. He yells at her and says, “Now if you’d married me, you’d still be alive because I’d be able to provide for you.” And then he sings a love song, what he always wanted to do all his life.
How did the Holodomor play come about?
I got a call from a priest from Toronto, John Tataryn. He said, “You know, it is the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor in 2008, and we need to do something; could you make something happen?”
Easy for him to say.
Easy for him. “Father, I have 12 parishes; I don’t know if I have time!” “Never mind,” he says. “I’ll start sending you material.” So he started sending me material, in book form, in article form; various things that happened. I started piecing this together, and then the idea of the songs, the hymns came into play.
The Holodomor was an ideological crime, a political crime. How do you make a spiritual play about that?
There are various moments in this where we see human sacrifice being made, one for another, people helping people. Once in a while there is a song, church hymns that place it within the context of our relationship with our Creator.
And then it ends with the short memorial we do when we memorialize the dead in our Church.
I know the Holocaust is a philosophical and spiritual challenge for Jewish people in the way it challenges belief in God or at least in a benevolent God. How do you deal with this challenge in your play?
The best way to make sense of this is that all life continues from our earthly life into our eternal life. It seems that God has turned his back on us when terrible things happen to good people. When we have 9/11, when we have the Great Famine of ’32-’33. People could think, Why? How is God allowing this to happen? God has a plan; God has a large plan, and all of this is in his plan, and it’s all there for those who need aid in our faith in our Creator. This earthly life is only a very, very miniscule part of our eternal life, the life of our souls, which we are given at conception.
That kind of big-picture theologizing might not convince someone facing a personal loss.
I know. It sounds horrible. It sounds callous. One always has to be very careful how you couch, This is part of God’s plan, especially. One of the most rewarding but also difficult times in my priestly life is conducting funerals. It can be so rewarding because you are talking to a group of people — parishioners, friends, family — who are hurting, suffering, missing, all of the above, and somehow you’ve got to try to make sense of this all. You can’t in any way dismiss what has happened. It’s a great gift for a pastor to be able to speak to people and help them make sense of what has happened. I think I’ve been able to do it very often — especially when I bring in the idea we have of this wonderful faith in the eternity of the human soul and the fact of the Second Coming, when our bodies will be re-knit in their transfigured and eternal form, and we will be rejoined, all of us who ever existed. [You] feel all this sadness, but also feel a terrific joy.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.