Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 11, 2007
Man. Priest takes Damien's story of love to the stage
His acting career bears fruit as he performs life of 'leper priest'
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"Because Damien had this vision, this need to minister to these unfortunate people, he perseveres; he makes his aims be fulfilled."
- Fr. Edward Evanko
Since then he has performed it in Rome, London, Chicago and several Canadian centres. He has two more performances in Brandon, Man., in June and then will stop for the summer "because the summer is wildly busy with weddings and all sorts of feast days."
Evanko looks after 12 parishes, including four major parishes and eight missions, in western Manitoba. "I don't know how I find time. I just try to make time."
Why does Evanko do this? "The simple answer is because people ask me and they are anxious perhaps to raise some money for various causes, various charities."
Evanko also sees his performances as part of his ministry. "It's part of my life as a priest just as having homilies or presiding at liturgies," he said. "This is an extension of that."
He loves the idea that the play may take young people along a different path. "Maybe some of them will think about a vocation in religious life. If that happens even with one person each time I do it, it's worth doing."
Evanko took a week's vacation to come to Wetaskiwin and Edmonton. While here he recorded the play on CD, which he will sell during his performances to raise money for leprosy charities in Damien's honour. The CD "will be like a radio play with sound effects and music and all kinds of added ambiances."
Time permitting, Evanko would consider doing plays about other religious figures. But he adopted Damien because the play already existed when he was looking for a fundraiser for his priest friend.
"It's a magnificent piece because it tells the story (of Damien) and it's not just like a lecture; it's a dramatic piece," he explained.
"There's a lot of conflict. Damien has conflict within his family, with his father for instance who objects to his vocation; with his rector at the seminary who doesn't think he is priest material. Then when he finally manages to be ordained, various bishops gave him problems. The board of health is always trying to stop his ministry.
"But because Damien had this vision, this need to minister to these unfortunate people, he perseveres; he makes his aims be fulfilled."
Damien was born Joseph de Veuster in Tremeloo, Belgium Jan. 3, 1840. The son of well-to-do parents, he entered the Sacred Heart Congregation at Louvain in January 1859 and five years later was ordained a priest in Honolulu.
While in Kohala, Damien wrote to his superior that many of his parishioners had been shipped to a leper colony on Molokai and that he had "an undeniable feeling that soon I shall join them."
On May 10, 1873, Damien travelled with a shipload of lepers to Molokai. After two days he decided to devote the rest of his life to the leper settlement.
Damien accomplished amazing feats while on Molokai. Six chapels were built by 1875. He constructed a home for boys and later one for girls. He bandaged wounds, made coffins, dug graves, heard Confessions and said Mass every morning.
Yet nobody thought Damien was cut out to be a priest. "Everybody kept saying he is not suited to being a religious," said Evanko. "He was too forceful. He wasn't quiet and restrained. He was noisy. But that's how he succeeded in his mission."
In December 1884, Damien noticed severe blisters on his feet without the presence of pain. As he suspected, the disease was leprosy.
Damien died on April 15, 1889, on Molokai after 16 years of undaunted dedication. He was buried in Molokai.
"About 50 years later, when the Belgian government and all his other adversaries realized what an amazing sacrifice he had made, his body - this is all part of the story in the play - was exhumed and taken back to be buried in Louvain, Belgium.
"The extraordinary thing is when they exhumed his body 50 years later it was uncorrupted; everything - his vestments were all mouldy, his rosary was kind of rusty but his body was intact."
Damien was beatified in June 1995 under the title of Blessed Father Damien, Servant of Humanity. "I hope and pray that during my lifetime maybe I'll be able to go to Rome and be there for his canonization."
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