Leonardo Defilippis performs ‘Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.’ (Courtesy Saint Luke Productions)
Leonardo Defilippis performs ‘Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.’ (Courtesy Saint Luke Productions)
When Leonardo Defilippis traveled to Alabama to give Mother Angelica a private performance of the one-man show “Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz,” the founder of EWTN had already entered into what her biographer called “her grand silence,” the result of a stroke.

Still she welcomed Defilippis and watched his performance with rapt attention.

“I watched her weep,” recalled Defilippis.

Afterward he was struck by how Mother Angelica had watched thousands of electronic dramas, sermons and documentaries. “But I don’t know if she’s ever seen a live drama of a saint,” he said.

Mother Angelica’s tears that day still capture for Defilippis the reason the company he founded in 1980, Saint Luke Productions, exists. “It was so intimate,” he said. “She was so grateful.”

For Defilippis, theater is the most impactful way of touching souls. “When you’re in the presence of a saint, you’re a participant. With the one-person shows, the saint is looking directly into your eyes. I’ve experienced it a thousand times. I’ve seen priests break down and cry.”

Like other face-to-face businesses, Saint Luke Productions has been hard hit by COVID-19. Parishes across the country could no longer bring people into parish halls to view the five productions that were touring — “starring” St. Augustine, St. John Vianney, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Faustina and Augustus Tolton, America’s first Black priest.

“It’s a miracle we’re still going,” Defilippis said.

Theaters are shuttered across the country and beyond. “Patti [his wife] has relative in Bulgaria. It’s all shut down too.”

Scrambling like other small businesses to avoid layoffs, the Defilippises have released a rosary (CD or downloadable) that people can pray with at home.

Their latest film project, “Heart of Mercy,” adapted from the play “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy,” has been delayed, with an appeal for funding on the company’s website.

“We’re fortunate that we’d already gone into the electronic realm,” said Defilippis.

His thoughts are never far from the stage, however, and Defilippis said that, similarly, although Saint Luke Productions has moved to Battle Ground, Washington, the Archdiocese of Portland is still, in a way, the company’s home. “Our origin is all there,” said Defilippis.

Take Father Pat Donoghue, for example. Defilippis has not only known the priest for a long time, he knew Father Donoghue’s parents in Beaverton. “He’s been a tremendous supporter, as are so many pastors.”

Saint Luke Productions has performed at 99 churches in the Archdiocese of Portland and 20 in the Diocese of Baker, many of them multiple times — like at St. Anthony Parish in Southeast Portland, where Father Donoghue is pastor. Other venues in the archdiocese include monasteries, religious houses, high schools and retreat centers, in particular the Quo Vadis retreats for men considering the priesthood. The company also has performed extensively at prisons.

Defilippis had been acting in productions at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival when he founded the company. Raised Catholic and immersed in the theater world, he rediscovered his faith while performing in a Shakespeare production in Colorado.

In Ashland he became increasingly drawn to the idea of performing explicitly Christian drama on stage. He also felt drawn to the priesthood. Reading an article in the Catholic Sentinel about monks interested in the arts, when he had a break he took a bus to Mount Angel. Father Bernard Sander, a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey for 70 years, picked Defilippis up in Woodburn and took him to the hilltop monastery.

“Father Bernard kept asking me to do something spiritual,” Defilippis said.

He decided to write a drama based on the Gospel of Luke. He performed it at Carpenter Hall in Ashland, then took it on the road.

Then Father Bernard asked what he would be performing for the Lenten season. “Why don’t you do the Passion?” the priest asked.

“I started to see this was my vocation,” Defilippis said.

An early success came in 1982 when the Archdiocese of Portland sponsored a production of “Francis: Troubadour of God's Peace” at the Keller Auditorium in Portland. An audience of 3,000 donated two tons of food for the poor.

Defilippis prepared for the role by living for three months in what was then known as skid row in downtown Portland.

He and Patti Slover, also an actor, married in 1983 and she became his stage manager and co-writer. Over the years the company has expanded to hire other actors and support staff. It remains the only theatrical company performing live dramas of the lives of the saints — across the country and in Europe.

The future isn’t clear, but Defilippis feels sure his ministry is needed. “You’re seeing an incredible amount of discouragement, impatience and fear,” he noted. “What we do, performing the Gospel and the lives of the saints, that brings their message of peace and hope and joy. The opposite of discouragement.”

In the broader culture, Defilippis hopes Saint Luke Productions brings a glimpse of how the church can be the mother of the arts, as it was in the past. “Apologetics and education are important, but so is art,” he said. “Art is remembered longer than a sermon is, or your parish’s catechetical plan. They’re essential too, but so is art.”

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