GREEN BAY — When Dr. Bill Evans is ordained to the diaconate by Bishop David Ricken on Sunday, June 3, 3 p.m., at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, the moment will mark another step on his conversion journey.
Evans, who is on path to ordination to the priesthood in the summer of 2019, is a Missouri native. His father, William, was 45, and his mother, Alice, was 38 at the time of the birth of their only child. Alice died when he was only 4 years old.
“My father and I tried to do it alone for a while, not very successfully,” said Evans. “I had a very saintly aunt, my father’s sister, who took us in. I moved across the state line to Johnson County, Kansas, when I was in third grade. I really credit my Aunt Margaret (Morris) for stabilizing my life.”
Evans describes his childhood as “unchurched.” His maternal grandfather, who died before he was born, was a Methodist Episcopal preacher. Family members in the household had titles for specific religious affiliations, but they did not attend services of any kind.
“When I was 12, my Aunt Margaret wanted me to have a church life, so we visited different Protestant churches,” explained Evans. “I think she was hoping that something would stick. By the time I was a teen, I felt there was a void. There was an ache in my heart that I couldn’t describe at the time. I didn’t have words for it.”
His family had secular traditions for the holidays. On Christmas Eve when he was 13 or 14, Evans found himself to be the only person in the house still awake after an evening of food and gifts.
“I happened to flip on the television. The first thing that came on was some sort of religious service,” he explained. It was something I had never seen or heard before. My first inclination was to flip it off. I was sitting right in front of the television. I couldn’t turn it off. I was listening and watching. I realized by the words of the narrator that it was something called a Catholic Mass.”
The Mass was the taped broadcast of the midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Evans was fixated on the Eucharist.
“I can remember seeing the camera zoom in on a priest giving Communion to a little girl,” he said. “I never heard a voice, but the message in my head was loud in clear: ‘This is what I want for you.’ I know that it was God responding to that void, responding to that ache. I just wept in front of the television. I couldn’t tell anyone. I had no clue what to do with it.”
Evans eventually asked a Catholic friend about how he could become a member of the church. The friend told him that “all you need is a medal.” Evans visited a local store and purchased a four-way cross with his lawn mowing earnings.
“The price of the medal was exactly the amount I had stuffed in my pocket,” he said. “On the back, it said, ‘I am Catholic, in case of emergency, call a priest.’ I put this medal on and declared myself Catholic.”
In high school, he attended his first Catholic liturgy with the family of a girl he had met. He later visited the rectory to talk with a priest.
“A young priest with big hair and mutton chop sideburns came to the door. This was the ’70s,” he explained. “I said, ‘I want to be a Catholic.”
Following permission from his family, Evans began one-on-one catechesis. He would not enter the church until he was a student at Kansas University. When he became a Catholic, he struggled to live out his faith.
“I was a pre-med student. Life was a roller coaster,” he said. “I never quit going to Mass, but my focus became medicine and secular things. I had too much too early with my family and trying to get into medical school.”
Evans moved on to the University of Wisconsin’s surgery program following medical school at Kansas. He achieved professional success working at hospitals in the Madison area, but drifted from the faith.
“I wanted to be the latest and greatest in surgery,” he said. “The pot can be profoundly cracked, but God still wants to heal it. God never abandoned me.”
Evans became involved in ministries at St. Mary Parish in Pine Bluff, Wis. In 2008, he decided that he needed to give up the material success in his life.
“God sent me to Wyoming to a community of Carmelite monks,” he said. “I still needed to work. I left my practice in Madison and went to Cody (Wy.) to a little 35-bed hospital.
“The men at the Carmel absolutely embraced me,” he said. “They taught me the spirituality of Carmel. I was their doctor. I did carpentry work for them. I did lawn work. It was an opportunity to regain the path to holiness.”
Father of Mercy Joseph Aytona, while serving at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Cody, asked Evans if he ever considered seminary. Evans, who is now 58, thought that door had closed. He discovered Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., which serves older men for one-year unsponsored by a diocese. Evans was accepted. He needed to find a diocese to sponsor him to continue formation. The first letter he wrote was to Bishop Ricken, but not because of his connection to Wyoming, where Bishop Ricken had established the Carmel monastery during his time there.
“The reason I’m certain I’m called to the Diocese of Green Bay is, when I was still in practice, only by God’s will, I was in a really bad, desperate place spiritually, I went on a men’s retreat on Chamber’s Island,” he said. “Through that men’s retreat, I knew my life had to change. I went every year until I left for Wyoming.”
When Bishop Ricken contacted Evans, he had already committed to a postulancy to a religious order. He was sent to a monastery in Peru, where he stayed for nearly a year.
“I knew it was not where God wanted me to be,” he said.
He again contacted the Diocese of Green Bay and agreed to live in the diocese for a period of time. In the spring of 2016, he was offered the opportunity to become a diocesan seminarian. He entered Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, near Milwaukee, in the fall of 2016. St. Francis Xavier Cathedral became Evans’ adopted home parish.
Deacon José Lopez will vest Evans at the ordination Mass. The newly ordained deacon has been appointed to serve at Holy Spirit Parish, Kimberly/Darboy, during the summer before returning to St. Francis de Sales in the fall.
“I’m a very grateful man,” he said. “God could have just let me sink.”