A large, ecumenical crowd poured into Portland’s Civic Auditorium one September day in 1982 to see what seemed like an oxymoron: a Catholic actor. Leonardo Defilippis, 30, who had given up a lucrative six-year stint as a Shakespearean actor at San Diego’s Globe Theater and Oregon’s Ashland Shakespeare Festival, was going for broke that day and performing the one-man play St. Francis: Troubadour of God’s Peace. From the moment he appeared on stage in a ragged brown tunic as Francesco Bernadone, the rich and extravagant youth who in the thirteenth century gave up his riches to become a legend, he had the audience hooked.
The sponsoring Archdiocese of Portland, which had rented out the auditorium, gave away three thousand tickets for Defilippis’s biggest performance to date. For the past two years, he had been traveling about the Pacific Northwest doing one-man shows on the Gospel of Luke—the first of what are now eight plays—traveling about in a yellow van, living off donations, accepting whatever room and board his hosts cared to offer, while sending any extra money to Mother Teresa. The nun had written him back suggesting that instead of charging for his plays and sending the money to her, he should perform for free, so the poorest could afford to see him.
Saints on Stage
Defilippis took this to heart, making his plays free to all, including twelve street people from Skid Row who had walked to the Civic to see him. Defilippis lived in a Skid Row hotel on Burnside Street in Portland for a month while writing the script for St. Francis, and so had come to know these men. His sets were very simple: some stools and a round tapestry as a backdrop. Defilippis played the gamut of characters: An arrogant bow marked him as a Pharisee and a flip of the cloak transformed him into Peter or Jesus. It was a spiritual switch from performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for sure, but just as he had made Shakespearean prose come alive, his use of cadence, accents, and gestures transformed the Civic stage into thirteenth-century Assisi. He was a hit.
Eleven years later, Defilippis, forty-one, stood on another stage, this one at the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver. By this time, he had been married ten years and had fathered four children. His wife, Patti, herself an actress and director, was pregnant with their fifth child and handling the lights for this huge stage. It was August 13, 1993, World Youth Day, and Pope John Paul II was in town. Although the pope never made it to the Paramount, twenty-five hundred other people did, with six hundred turned away, and all eager to see Defilippis’s world premiere of Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.
This time, the stakes were much higher. Defilippis already had received $10,000 from the Militia Immaculata, a group started by Kolbe in 1912 as an answer to free masonry, to research and write the screenplay. He then was invited to Denver to one of dozens of activities happening during the three-day event, but there was a catch: He had to foot all the expenses. By the time he learned this, there were only two weeks before the pope arrived, during which time Defilippis had to raise $7,000 get himself, his wife, and his props to Denver; find a place to stay; rent out the theater; pay union wages; and buy insurance. Some last-ditch efforts by home-schooling friends, a fund-raising performance, and a $500 contribution from then-Archbishop of Portland William Levada brought it in.
The show opens to the music of Portland composer Randall DeBruyn. Kolbe is a ten-year-old boy in his Polish home, where he had a vision of Mary. In the vision, Mary offered him two crowns symbolizing martyrdom and purity. Which one, she asked, did he want? Both, the young Maximilian replied. Not surprisingly, he enters the priesthood.
Soon Defilippis, in black circular wire-rim glasses and a dark Franciscan habit, describes how Kolbe founded a suborder, the Knights of the Immaculata, devoted to Mary. His activities, including publishing Poland’s largest newspaper, attract the attention of the Nazis and in February 1941, at the age of forty-seven, he is imprisoned.
During the final scenes, Defilippis wears a black-and-white-striped concentration camp uniform. Soon comes the moment of truth that makes Kolbe one of World War II’s most famous martyrs: Kolbe has been at the camp five months when a prisoner is found missing. His barracks is summoned to appear before the German commandant. The punishment is well known; for each missing prisoner, ten die in his place. The commandant points out one man, then another, until one of the doomed cries out, bemoaning having to leave his wife and children. Kolbe steps up.
“I would like to die in the place of one of the men you condemned,” he tells the commandant. “I am an old man, sir, and good for nothing. My life will serve no purpose.”
“In whose place do you want to die?” the surprised commandant asks him. Kolbe motions toward the weeping prisoner with the wife and children. The commandant agrees.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“A Catholic priest,” is the answer.
Off he is sent with the other nine to the starvation bunker, a hellish cell where even water is denied. Although having had no chance to prepare for this spiritually, Kolbe instantly becomes shepherd to the dying men. The days pass by and all in the camp are amazed to hear hymns, instead of screams, coming from the bunker. Two weeks later on August 14, 1941, the Germans need the cell for a fresh load of prisoners. In the closing minutes of the play, Defilippis is nearly collapsed on the stage. A doctor arrives with lethal injections for him and three other prisoners. With a faint smile, the saint holds out his arm for the fatal syringe. As the doctor injects the poison, he breathes his last, with a whispered “Love the Immaculata!” Defilippis sinks to the ground and the stage goes dark.
When Defilippis rose to take his bow, seemingly all twenty-five hundred spectators stood up shouting and screaming amid the light bulb flashes that surrounded the dazed actor.
“It was electric; it really took the roof off the place,” one observer later said. He had prepared long for this, having read eight books on the saint before even starting on the script. Defilippis knew this was crucial. The Civic performance was the first; this show-stopper was the second pivotal point in his career.
“Prophetically, I could see what could happen with this show,” he says. “I didn’t know how it would come out. I just did it on faith and my performance was just a little dot on the day’s list of activities. But the people just showed up from somewhere.
“[Since then] every performance I’ve had, I meet someone who’s been in a concentration camp or had their parents killed in one. I’ve met people who were in the line-up with Maximilian. These things happened in our own century.”
The show is in its third year and still going strong, performed in Catholic churches, convents, public schools, and prisons. Kolbe exercises a strong hold on the popular imagination: He was canonized a saint in October 1982 by John Paul II, who called him a “saint for our difficult age.”
Defilippis will sometimes embrace people after the performance, only to find them shaking and sobbing.
“People are very serious about this show,” he says. “It’s relevant because it’s about our century and there’s a heightened awareness of the spiritual battle going on and that’s what this story is about. A lot of people would say he was crazy to give up his life, but his death had a great impact on Auschwitz and it gave the prisoners great hope.”
The play has since won some film awards and gotten Defilippis important backing from Ignatius Press, whose editor, Fr. Joseph Fessio, saw the play in San Francisco. Learning that Defilippis’s hopes to film the play and expand his non-profit organization, St. Luke’s Productions, were hampered for lack of funds, the publisher contributed $50,000 toward the $150,000 price tag for a Maximilian video. “He’s doing good work for the Church,” Fessio says. In fifteen months the publisher already has sold seven thousand to eight thousand of the videos at $25 each.
It helps that Defilippis personally is “an unassuming guy,” says Ignatius marketing director Tony Ryan, but more importantly “Leonardo is one of the best actors in the country. A lot of Hollywood folks couldn’t hold a candle to him.” Ignatius Press is now discussing other joint ventures with the actor, such as helping raise the $200,000 needed to film St. John of the Cross. First produced in 1991 on the four hundredth anniversary of the saint’s death, its filmed version will involve the addition of several actors and the use of the picturesque Mount Angel Abbey, just south of Portland, as a set. Until now, Defilippis’s works have been one-man shows, with the exception of the Song of Songs, filmed in 1990 at a nearby Trappist monastery with his wife, Patti. This fall, he is planning to produce a play on St. Therese of Lisieux. September 30, 1997, is the one hundredth anniversary of the popular French saint’s death.
Defilippis’s growing popularity has coincided with the growth of his family. Now forty-four, he has six children spaced two years apart; five of them (Clare, Francis, John, Mary, and Thomas Maximilian) are named after characters in his dramas. The exception is their youngest daughter, Lucy Anna, born in August 1996.
“Children are more worldly distractions, but on the other hand, there’s a more mature understanding of the Scriptures that comes with having a family,” he says. “Children force you to grow up.”
His wife, Patti, bears the brunt of their raising, as the children are schooled at home.
“The most important thing I can do is pray,” she wrote in one of the ministry’s newsletters. “And why shouldn’t everything I do, not just the words I utter, be offered up to God as a prayer, as an example of the love and desire of my heart? I don’t often get or don’t make time for a quiet retreat with the Lord in my day. But if I can make my actions—my dunking diapers, my getting up from the table again to get someone something to drink, my weeks with my husband away—a prayer, I can be praying all the time.”
One reason why her husband hopes to expand St. Luke Productions to a theater company, with everything from filmmaking to an apprenticeship program, is to spend more time with his children. He is on the road up to three months each year.
“The home-schooling movement is having great influence, as they are the people having the kids,” he says. “In a generation, we’ll out-populate the opposition.”
The eight-member family, along with a German shepherd, will also soon out-populate their three-bedroom home. Defilippis hopes they can find larger quarters as he trains others to do the work and lays groundwork for a Catholic actor’s guild.
“The main priority is to expand this for other artists,” he says. “I’m finding more artists are interested in me; people are sending me kids’ plays, radio scripts, and videos. In a Catholic context, there’s little connection with Catholicism and the arts, especially drama, in our society. Protestants are way ahead of us in this regard.” He lists Protestant evangelical acting groups: Taproot Theater in Seattle, AD Players in Houston, Lamb’s Players in San Diego. As for Catholics? He’s it.
Looking for Support
This could all change if he can find benefactors willing to help. Meanwhile, Patti Defilippis has drawn up a forty-page business plan to take the small company into the next century. Also in the works is a possible video on one his earlier productions, the Gospel of John, which Defilippis considers an even more powerful show than his first two plays on the Gospel of Luke. The play is the twenty-one chapters of the fourth Gospel, verbatim, and takes two hours to perform.
“When you start performing the word of God, you feel this tremendous grace,” he says. “You begin to see as an actor that it is not another script. If you believe the word of God is God, then Jesus becomes present in the actor for the people. It hits you that a man died. People are in tears. This is the ultimate in drama.” The acting out of such intense material—scripture has inherent power in its words alone—puts a heavy responsibility on the actor to maintain his spirituality, one reason why he and his family attend daily Mass and pray the rosary.
Although he was raised Catholic in Napa, California, Defilippis was not always devout. While acting in Shakespearean roles, he lived a dissolute life, he says, which he only realized after he met a dancer who was a heroin addict. When he saw he could not help her, he began to pray and was converted to being a practicing Christian. After he moved to Ashland, Oregon, he decided to act out the Scriptures, beginning with scripts taken from Luke.
“The text doesn’t get boring once you start entering into it,” he says. “Christianity is repetition, really.”
He eventually moved to the saints. His play, The Confessions of St. Augustine, created in 1987 for the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the saint’s conversion, is Patti Defilippis’s favorite, because she identifies with Augustine’s struggle with sin. Having met Defilippis in Ashland, she converted to Catholicism from the Presbyterian Church in 1981.
“There’s an interest in the saints, even among the Protestants, as they don’t have the saints in the same classical ways,” he says. “If you were to do a movie on the lives of these saints, most other films couldn’t hold a candle to them. They’re inspiring and timeless,” such as the story of St. John Vianney, a nineteenth-century French priest whose life he’s hoping to dramatize.
Defilippis’s career has had its down times and perhaps the most difficult places he has performed are in front of Catholic school students. He’s amazed to see girls applying lipstick or boys listening to their Walkmans during crucial moments in the script. Once a boy in California tried to blind him with a mirror, catching reflective light from the stage lights as he performed St. Francis. Another time, a student made faces at him for an entire performance. During one Maximilian tour, students at one school never stopped talking the entire time, tossing crumpled programs at his assistant during an especially climactic moment, causing him to miss cues for lights and sound.
“Through these students, I became more acutely aware of the battle between good and evil that I was portraying,” Defilippis says. “The sickness of our society was symbolized in this live performance. What a contrast to the young people I saw at World Youth Day! You’d never know there was a religious vocation crisis because all the orders were there in Denver—and at my performance.”