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Actor-turned-priest uses theatrical training to entertain, enlighten

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For 40 years, Edward Evanko thought his calling was acting, until he received a higher calling from a divine casting agent.

The former Winnipegger, 75, who made his Broadway debut in The Canterbury Tales with Sandy Duncan in 1969, was ordained into the priesthood in 2005 at Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church, where he had been baptized and served as an altar boy. With a dozen rural parishes to serve in rural western Manitoba, it appeared Father Edward Danylo Evanko would play the lifelong role of a man of the cloth.

"I thought I had left theatre totally behind until a priest with a sick father needed financial support," he says over the telephone from his home on Saltspring Island, near Vancouver. "I didn't think a concert was proper for a priest to become an entertainer again."

Evanko recalled a fellow actor performing a one-man play by Aldyth Morris at the Stratford Festival. Called Damien, it is about the life of a selfless missionary to the lepers, and thought he could return to the stage, if only briefly. In 2005, he performed it three times in his parishes and raised $4,000.

As far as he was concerned, the comeback was over, but then the telephone started ringing with requests to raise money for good causes, such as a new church roof or a new altar cloth.

Since then, he has taken Damien on the road to Australia, Ukraine, Rome, England and throughout North America. He returned to Manitoba in 2008 with a new solo work, Holodomor: Murder By Starvation, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of Stalin's famine-genocide in Ukraine. Evanko is back in the province for another six-stop run that culminates with a Nov. 22 performance at his old church, Blessed Virgin Mary, on Boyd Street.

Evanko was a promising city singer when he made his Rainbow Stage debut in Can Can in 1957, two years before he graduated from the University of Manitoba with an English degree. After studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in England, he returned to Winnipeg and appeared in the Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Fantasticks.

In 1967, he hosted the Ed Evanko Show on CBC-TV, two years before breaking into Broadway. He cut his first self-titled album in 1970 for Decca Records, who wanted to make him the next Tom Jones or the Canadian Engelbert Humperdinck.

He lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade before settling in Vancouver, where he began studying the scriptures and was first was presented with the idea of studying in Rome for the priesthood. Suddenly, his theatrical calling was trumped by another.

"I had not thought about the priesthood; I was a busy actor," he recalls. "It hit me like a ton of bricks and I had no choice. I knew that was exactly what I must do."

Recently, he left parish work in British Columbia to do preaching missions. On the side, he has been writing three new plays, including Blessed Nykyta: Bishop and Martyr about the first Ukrainian bishop to come to Canada in 1912, and Prisoners in the Promised Land, the story of Ukrainians interned in harsh Canadian labour camps at the outset of the First World War.

"I didn't think when I went into the priesthood this was how it would turn out, but I've been encouraged by so many lay people, priests and bishops to make this part of my ministry and that it was a very valuable contribution," says Evanko, who grew up on Mountain Street and attended Faraday School.

An actor who becomes a priest is not unheard of -- Pope John Paul II was an amateur theatre actor and a prolific writer of drama.

"I've used the knowledge of that (fact) as a way of countering any concern what I was doing as a priest-actor was improper," he says. "I say, 'Pope John Paul was an actor so it's not strange.'"

Evanko sees distinct parallels between the two callings, as both involve enlightenment, spirit-raising, and in a way, entertainment. He doesn't favour one over the other, and suggests such a question is like asking a mother to choose between her children.

"I say both," Evanko says, "because if Steven Spielberg called tomorrow that he needs to have me for his film, I could say, 'Thanks but no thanks,' because I am not that kind of actor. If RMTC was doing Mass Appeal and I was asked to play the priest, I would decline because I'm not that actor. I would feel uncomfortable doing a non-religious play."

Anyway, he prefers the lines he delivers today that come from the Good Book.

"The script I use now is the best possible script -- it's the word of God."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2013 C1

History

Updated on Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 7:23 AM CST: Adds photo, changes headline

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