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From daytime TV to Sunday communion
Edward Evanko the actor doesn't sweat his reviews. That's because as a priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Byzantine Church, Father Evanko answers to the ultimate critic.
On May 6, Evanko, the actor-turned-priest will present his one-man show, Blessed Nykyta: Bishop and Martyr, at the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in New Westminster. The play, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the appointment of Nykyta Budka as Canada's first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop, is literally a labour of Evanko's love for his church and its history.
That love hit him like a "bolt out of the blue" when he was well into a long career as an actor and singer. Born in Winnipeg in 1938, as a boy he sang for coins tossed his way at a grocery store in the city's north end, the heart of the Ukrainian community. He was a member of the Winnipeg Boy's Choir. He performed in high school musicals and while a student at the University of Manitoba, he appeared in summer theatre.
He was good enough to further his studies at the Old Vic theatre school in England which led to roles with the Stratford Festival, the English Opera, the Welsh National Opera and the BBC Singers. For a year, he hosted his own variety show on CBC-TV. He played Broadway, recorded an album, even had a recurring role as Dr. Alex McLean in the TV daytime soap opera, Ryan's Hope.
Along the way, Evanko's faith always traveled with him. He attended mass regularly; if there wasn't an Eastern Catholic church in which ever town his acting had taken him, he'd go to a Roman Catholic church.
The lightning bolt that would give new direction to his faith and life struck on Easter Sunday, 2001, during an innocent conversation with a pastor after he'd read the Scriptures at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver.
"Say the word, and you could be in Rome studying the priesthood," said the pastor.
The idea, says Evanko, took his breath away. He started to cry.
"That's exactly what I must do," thought Evanko. For the next four years he undertook the Catholic Formation, the rigourous education process for potential priests in which they learn theology, the church's history and develop the spiritual tools of their calling.
"I thought I would learn how to baptize babies, conduct weddings and funerals," says Evanko, who started his studies in Rome, spent a year in Washington, D.C., then completed them in Ottawa. "But that was just the tip of the iceberg."
His family and friends were supportive, some of his acting colleagues not so much.
"It was not easy, but there was this huge carrot, the opportunity to be a priest," says Evanko.
When he was ordained in August, 2005, Evanko thought he'd closed the acting chapter of his life for good. "I'm not an entertainer anymore," he told himself.
But while filling in for a young priest in Winnipeg who was sorting through a medical issue and then a family crisis, he yearned for a way to help ease them through their troubles. He fell back on the craft he'd known so long, adapting a play about Damien de Veuster, a Belgian-born missionary priest who lived with and cared for lepers in Hawaii until the disease took his own life in 1889.
"After 40 years of acting, you don't lose it," says Evanko.
Since then Evanko researched, wrote and performed Holodomor: Murder by Starvation, a play about the Ukrainian famine and genocide in 1932-33.
Blessed Nykyta is his third play.
Evanko says he's drawn to stories about his church and the Ukrainian community that he worries will be lost over time. He spent months of long nights scrounging through theses, articles and academic tomes researching the life of Nykyta Budka, learning as much about the man as his deeds, seeking to humanize him.
He punctuates his scripts with music, hymns, liturgy and sometimes even a lullaby.
"You can reach people by words, but when you sing there's another depth," says Evanko, who considers all his plays works-in-progress as he adapts and fine tunes them from feedback he receives after performances.
While Evanko has performed his works across Canada, in New York City, Philadelphia, the Bahamas and even the Belgian embassy in Vatican City, his primary calling remains the church. He is the pastor at the Church of the Holy Dormition of the Mother of God in Richmond.
"I had a call to the priesthood, and now I have a call within a call to present the life of a priesthood," says Evanko.
Blessed Nykyta will be presented May 6, 1:30 p.m. at the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church, 501 4th Ave. New Westminster. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for youth under 19. Children under 12 are free. They are available at the door, and the performance will be followed by refreshments. For more information contact Joyce Vermullen 604-944-1971.