In December of 2020 Father John Ulrich, SM returned to OLA after many years away and quickly jumped right back into the life of the parish! When not celebrating Mass or working in the office he can be found on ministry Zoom calls, visiting classrooms, talking walks around the parish, or even helping the Environment and Art Ministry clean up the church decorations after Christmas! My coworkers and I have found him to be a gentle, kind soul who models true servant leadership through his very being. And he has a wicked sense of humor!
Although a familiar face to OLA, Father John is new to many in our parish family so I sat down with him recently to learn a little bit more about him. In this interview you will learn what moved a young man to leave his family and enter the Marist Seminary in 1966. Six years later - on July 22, 1972 – John Ulrich professed is vows in the Society of Mary. He was ordained to the priesthood in his home parish of Our Lady of the Lake in Varona, New Jersey on December 27, 1986.
(What follows is a transcript – along with a few notes – from that meeting. Instead of a chronological story of Father John’s life, I have opted to stick with the flow of our conversation. Italicized text are when Father John was stating a question from a written list that I had given to him. All notes in bold italicized text are my questions or comments – or those notes are in parentheses.) +++++ Why did you become a priest? I became a priest, basically, because I felt called to it. What was that like? We had in our parish…where I went to grade school, wonderful priests and nuns. I mean they were really youthful, joyful. Priests that would come out and play basketball with us during recess. I just really looked up to them. I went to a parish high school, a neighboring parish high school, and the priests actually taught religion classes in the high school. And I was just so enamored with how joyful and happy they were. And the more I heard about what they did; you know the kind of things that they did. Just the fact that they were there for people at so many different critical times of their life. You know, the birth of a baby, a death in the family. Weddings. Anniversaries, jubilees, those kind of things. It just really drew me to consider seriously the priesthood. My family was not overly religious; in fact my father didn’t go to church. He was very, very opposed to me going into the seminary. When did you make that decision? At what age? The final decision was senior year in high school. And at that time you had to have parental permission, they had to sign a permission slip with your application. Because you were still a minor? Yes, and he wouldn’t sign the application. But one night my Mom and Dad were going out to dinner with my Dad’s sister and her husband and they came to our house first. You know, I’m usually pretty upbeat and joyful and that particular day I was pretty down and my aunt asked me what was the matter. So I told her that my dad wouldn’t sign the paper. When they came back from dinner my dad said, ‘Where’s that paper? I’ll sign it. And, I don’t know what possessed me, but he signed it and I got out of my pajamas, I got dressed and I left the house and walked to the mailbox and I mailed it. And the next morning he wanted it back. And I said, ‘Well, too bad, it’s property of the US mail service now.” And when I finally got my acceptance, I didn’t tell him for weeks and there was a big blow out over it. What drew me to the Society of Mary? In that parish grade school (Verona, New Jersey) that parish was having a mission and the Marists were doing the mission. And what they would do during the day is they went into the classrooms. So this Marist priest, John
McShane, – I was in the 5th grade – he came in and talked to us about the Marists. At that point we had a girls 5th grade and a boys 5th grade so it was the boys class. He talked about the Marists and I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I used to make my – I’m the eldest of eight and I used to make my siblings play school. I used to make them play school and, I, of course was the teacher. Were you a bossy teacher? Yes. And I would play Mass and they would have to attend Mass. Did they like any of it? Somewhat. They teased me about it, especially now, and at my ordination they told horrible stories about me. But I made sure my sisters had their heads covered and my sisters had to wear those (mantillas). So this Fr. Mc Shane in the 5th grade talked about the Marists and when he said ‘teaching’ that really made me perk up. And being from a large family community was always important to me. Although I admired the priests in my parish, they were diocesan priests and I knew that they were kinda like individual agents. So that idea of the community life appealed to me, and being dedicated to the Blessed Mother, and teaching. He passed out these little 3x5 index cards that had spaces for your name and stuff and he said, ‘if you want to stay in touch, every once in a while I send out a little newsletter.’ And so I did. And I started getting this stuff maybe 3 or 4 times a year and it kept me interested. Of course when I got into high school it kinda went to the back seat for a while. But then as discussions in school centered around ‘what are you going to do when you graduate’ this just kept coming back to me. So I decided well, as I understand it, it’s a process so just by virtual of the fact that you decide to enter the seminary it doesn’t mean that you have to stay. It’s a progression. But if you hadn’t, you’d wonder for the rest of your life? Right. And so I went and it was kind of a scary day. I’d never flown before and the seminary was in Iowa. Once my mother saw that it was on the other side of the Mississippi, I mean, it could have been in China. And that was which Province at that point? Washington. I got there and never, never, never was I homesick. I absolutely loved it. Absolutely loved it. It just fit like a glove, even though at that time it was still pretty strict. We couldn’t make or receive phone calls without permission. Our mail was slit open. So what year was that? I entered in ’66. One kinda funny little incident. Other seminarians picked me up at the airport. So when we got to the seminary I said, ‘I need got to use the phone to call may mother.’ And they said, ‘you’ve got to get permission to use the phone.’ They told me where the superior’s room was. So I knocked on the door, introduced myself, and I said, ‘I understand that I need permission to use the phone.’ He said, ‘that’s correct. Who do you want to call?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to call my mother.’ ‘Why do you want to call your mother? You just saw your mother.’ I said, ‘Well, she wants me to let her know that I got there okay.’ ‘She knows you got here okay. If the plane crashed it would have been on the news.’ So did he let you call your mom? I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ So I went and I was unpacking and I was thinking ‘what the heck have I done?’ Then a few minutes late he came up to my room and said, ‘yeah, you can use the phone. I was just kinda testing you.’ You entered right after the Second Vatican Council ended? Yeah, it really hadn’t been implemented because we were still – as you might have seen from that picture in my office – still wearing the cassock. A picture of me playing basketball in a cassock. And the Mass was still in Latin. And we had to take an excruciating amount of Latin. We had like 19 hours of Latin a week. It was terrible. I hardly remember any of it. And the guy who taught it – Father Nehaus – he was very, very strict and I wasn’t afraid of him, but he made me so nervous. In fact one time – his main approach to the class was to open – we had copies of the Bible in Latin – and he’d just name a passage and we had to find it, read it, and translate it. Like on the spot. I’ll never forget. The thing was nolite timere so I read that and he said, ‘okay, what does that mean?’ And I was like nolite timere? nolite timere? Fumbling around and my classmates were squirming because they knew I was uncomfortable. And he’s behind me holding onto my chair going, ‘Come on, John! Come on!’ Rocking that chair back and forth, and finally he says ‘don’t be afraid!’ I said, ‘Father, I’m not afraid. I just don’t know the answer.’ He said, ‘You idiot, that is the answer. Nolite timere means don’t be afraid.’ The priest that you met in grade school? John McShane. Were you still close? Yes. In fact, he vested me at my ordination….and, actually, at one point. He was still on that mission there and he lived at the seminary my last 2 years there. What did you do before you were a priest? I was a student. I worked to help pay my tuition ‘cause my parents couldn’t afford it. I helped the janitor two days a week and then three days a week I worked as an office boy in a real estate office. The most rewarding thing about being a priest is just being part of so many people’s lives at different and poignant stages. I remember one time when I was teaching at Marist I went to one of the school plays and during the intermission I was standing outside the auditorium with a bunch of the students and we were joking around. And this parent came up to me and said – I was Brother John at the time – and said, ‘Brother, I just have to tell you, I know you have a vow of poverty, but I think you are one of the richest people I know. Just look at these kids.’ So when I’m answering that question about being a priest what I’m really saying is about being a religious, about being a Marist. Just the opportunity to be part of so many people’s lives. And actually I really….actually, I prefer the title of ‘Brother’ to ‘Father.’ Can you share a favorite moment of your time as a priest? I guess the year I was here at OLA. We got a phone call in the middle of the night and I was on duty. It was…someone at St. Joseph’s Hospital was going to have a heart transplant. They wanted the person to be anointed. Of course, I was sound asleep so I woke up. I kind of had to get myself together….by the time I got over there the person was already in the operating room. So I had to scrub up. I was petrified. You were a new priest at that time? Yeah….The nurse led me into the operating room and the doctor and nurses stepped back and I anointed this person. I was just so nervous. I guess it was the next day and I got a phone call from this woman who was the wife of the guy and she said, ‘Just wanted to let you know that my husband is doing well and, as strange as it might sound, even though he was under the effects of anesthesia he told me that he knew you were there.’ She said, ‘I told the nurse that and she said that’s really strange because he was anesthetized ‘cause we were ready to start the operation. And he just said to his wife, I just knew that priest was there and I felt at peace.’ And so when she told me that, that was, of course, something that really stuck with me about the power of the sacrament. And a total affirmation of everything you went through? Yeah. And what we believe about the sacrament. It may not restore someone’s health, but the healing thing is the person is at peace and they feel prepared for whatever happens. My favorite ministry really is teaching. I love teaching. I didn’t miss it the last several years, I mean I didn’t miss the discipline. What I should say is… my favorite ministry is working with young people. I love working with young people. I don’t know that I could go back in the classroom with all the technology and stuff. But I love working with young people. I feel a connection. And I felt that even when – all the places I’ve been – even if I’d only been there a year. I’d connect. (A beautiful example of Father John’s ability to connect with youth is the fact that the 1984-1985 Marist Yearbook was dedicated to him – to Brother John – in his last year teaching in the school. The dedication page reads as follows: The Senior Class of 1985 is proud to dedicate the 84-85 edition of the ARCADE to Brother John Ulrich, SM. Since he first started teaching at Marist in 1973, Brother John has been a tremendous asset to the school community. He is famous for his ‘Menta Ward’ room, his ‘opportunities’, his unique ways of teaching a class and his outstanding work with Emmaus. Graduates returning to their high school alma mater always stop by to see how ‘energetic’ Brother John is managing. Even those students who were beamed with a tennis ball during Sacraments or Marriage while taking a snooze during a less than exciting filmstrip pay Brother John a visit. It is said that a good teacher is one who contributes to the whole school community. Beside the caring attitude he has towards everyone, Brother John’s most successful, worth-while contribution to Marist is the Emmaus Club. Because of Brother John hundreds of students, along with many adults, have experienced a wonderful weekend of an Emmaus Retreat. The love of God is an important part of Marist and Brother John has reminded many people of His love and brought many people closer to God.
Brother John Ulrich is a beloved teacher, and more importantly, a beloved friend who will be missed dearly next year. This yearbook is for you Brother John. It is the sincere hope of the student body that when your work in Boston has been completed, that at some time in the future you can return ‘home.’ You have influenced so many of us through your years at Marist, and this is just a small token of expressing our thanks and best wishes to you. We will never forget you.) So high school and college are the main thing? Yeah.
And your first assignment was here? My first assignment as a priest. I taught for two years before I went to Marist. I taught before going to the novitiate. And then we taught during the novitiate year. I don’t think I have a favorite movie. I’m not a big movie buff. If I go to a theater, I usually fall asleep. I sometimes fall asleep watching TV. Father Kevin gives me a hard time about that. I love to read. I love listening to classical music. I like taking care of plants. I like kind of organizing things. I don’t like cleaning, but I like things to be neat… I like cooking. Do you have a specialty? No. …but I like to drink wine while I’m cooking. I don’t really know what priests do on their day off. You and Father Kevin don’t appear to have taken a day off since you got here. We’re struggling with that. This is why. Jim has
his golf buddies and he’s been here so long that he knows people. If I have one day off and Kevin has another day off then what do ya do? So we’re really struggling with that. It’d be nice if we could both have the same day off so we could do stuff. But it’s just a whole different dynamic. At the college all had Fridays off because we did ministry on the weekends... Even there we didn’t do an awful lot. We always did our grocery shopping on Fridays for the following week. We always got pizza for lunch. Sometimes we’d go out for walks or just go out and see some scenery and stuff. What do you want the people of OLA to know? I want them to know how happy I am to be here. And how welcome I feel. And how grateful I am for our nice new house because Kevin and I don’t have to share a bathroom.
How does it feel? Suddenly you’re back and these kids you taught in high school and suddenly they’re adults with families. What is that like? It feels great. In fact, after the first parish council meeting I sent an email to David (Wathen) and Matt (Gunning) and just said how proud I was of them that they were still involved in their faith. And they wrote back and thanked me for that, and David said something that was really very touching. He said, ‘I really appreciate that, but I’m just following up what was modeled to me by you guys at Marist.’ That was just so rewarding to hear that. And you know, I have no medical issues, but I have a sister who is a retired nurse who was on my case, ‘Johnny, you’ve got to get a doctor. Don’t wait until you need a doctor. You need to get a doctor.’ So I went and met my new doctor yesterday and he’s a former student! You know what’s amazing. You know David’s reaction to you, that he sent back to you? It surprised you, but you don’t know the difference you make in people’s lives. And I’ll tell you a story ‘cause you didn’t know me when you were here. And probably the only time we spoke was when I was walking in and out of church. We did have a conversation after my 25th Anniversary of Ordination when I had Mass here. That’s when you told me that you remembered my homily on my first anniversary. It just so happened that the first anniversary of my ordination was on a Sunday and I was preaching that Sunday.
I remember it... for all these years since you’ve left I’ve always had this idea that you were here for (a) long amount of time. And you’ve always…had in my memory a very special place. I was trying to figure out why – after you came back – I’m like, but he was here for a minute and we didn’t know each other. I started thinking about where I was (emotionally/spiritually) …in the years you were here... And I realized that when you were here was when I was in the darkest part of my life. I was suicidal, I was…I mean, it was horrible. And you were that bright spot of hope that, even though I didn’t know you, that over these past thirty years there’s been that hope there because of a seed of hope that you somehow planted in a teenager’s mind when she had given up all hope. Thank you. No, thank you ‘cause you probably saved my life…. I did help Mary Anne (Castrianio) with a lot of youth stuff. When I left here I was vocations director and I lived at Marist and I did stuff here and at St. Joe’s in Marietta.
I do have another story from that first year. You know the ‘Joneses’? ‘Joe Jones’? (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.) ‘Joe’ was in school here in the 8th grade
when I was here. And I used to joke around with those kids. I got a message from Sister Judith Diane who said, ‘Can you come down here? I have a question that I want to ask you.’ So I went down to her office and Joan Tiernan was there, she was an 8th grade teacher. She said, ‘Um. This is really uncomfortable, but ‘Joe Jones’ told a nasty joke and Mrs. Tiernan heard him. And when she confronted him on it he said ‘Father John told me that joke.’ And she said, ‘Did you?’ and I said, ‘no!’ She said, ‘Whew! Cause it sounded like the kind of thing you might have said!’ So the next time I saw him I said, ‘Joe, you threw me under the bus! Why did you?’ He said, ‘I just thought that maybe if she thought you told me, I wouldn’t get in trouble.’ The most important thing about being a Marist is being part of a wonderful family of supportive brothers. Having opportunities to do things that I never imagined I would have done. Anything in particular? Like I said, all I ever wanted to do was teach. I was stretched by being named Vocations Director which required a lot of travelling and stepping out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, doing assessments of potential candidates.
Being called to work in college campus ministry and having to raise over $100,000 every year just to keep our campus ministry. Where all were the college ministries? The first one was in Waco, Texas. Then San Luis Obispo, California and then Poughkeepsie Marist College. I have another question for you. Did your dad ever come around? No. He never did. He died before I was ordained. He was the only one in my family that did not come to my first vows that were in Ohio at our High School there. My final vows were here at Marist in Atlanta and he did not come for that. He never really came around and, actually, he thought that when I told him how happy I was…he thought that I was just saying that to show him that he was wrong….we had an adversarial relationship because I was the oldest and I stood up to him all the time. He had a drinking problem and I would just confront him. But interestingly, that one year I was here I did give a homily about my dad being an alcoholic and a parent challenged me after Mass saying that was totally inappropriate. The funny thing was, a week later his son contacted me and asked me if he could talk to me. Because he knew that I would understand. And I wondered when that father was so defensive… You really, truly are a servant. I try to be….This kid, one I was teaching in Cambridge. Just outside of Boston. And it was kind of a tough school. Much, much, much, much, much different than Marist. Tough as in it was academically tough or a tough crowd? A tough crowd. I think we did a good job there with the resources we had. But there was this kid, David. We just connected. He came to talk to me a few times. His dad was a policeman. And his dad….he found out that his dad was being unfaithful to his mom and it just devastated him. I spent a lot of time with him. He was an only child…that name ‘Brother’ meant a lot to him because he was an only child. He was there at my ordination and…the name ‘Father’ came to mean something to him as well. +++++ In the few short months since Father John has returned to OLA it is evident to all that he still retains that servant spirit, one filled with great joy, showing us that the words in that Marist yearbook remain true. Father John continues to remind people of His love and draw us closer to Him.