Catholic priest had ink in his veins
Before he let God into his soul, Father Eric Urlich had ink running thick through his veins.
The Catholic priest spent the first part of his life indulging his inquiring mind as a journalist before committing to the church at the age of 50.
Wanderlust and itchy feet took him from provincial New Zealand to Australia, apartheid South Africa and the United States before his return to New Zealand, where he would shift his pursuit of a good story into his search for enlightenment.
Eric Urlich was born in Hawera in 1927 and educated in Whanganui.
Brought up Catholic by a nonCatholic family, Urlich said he went through periods of doubt about his faith.
‘‘As a young man you think there are greater priorities,’’ he once said.
As it turned out he would be a latecomer to his calling, eventually joining the seminary at the age of 50.
Urlich started out working on the roads, at the local freezing works and woolstores before his inquisitiveness led him to become a reporter for the Wanganui Chronicle newspaper.
Like all rookie provincial journos, he covered everything, from Women’s League to A&P shows. These were the days, he once recalled, when there was more than one newspaper even in the smaller towns and competition for stories was intense.
He was a true newshound who relished the satisfaction of beating the opposition to a story.
He later moved across to the Wanganui Herald, before becoming chief sub-editor at The Dominion in Wellington.
The sports-mad journalist went on to become sports editor at the new Sunday Times, started in 1965 by a young Australian publisher named Rupert Murdoch.
‘‘He wasn’t a bad boss if you did your job well ... He was tough but fair, I guess you’d say,’’ Urlich said in a 2014 interview.
A desire to see the world and write about it took him across the ditch, where he took up a job at The Age newspaper in Melbourne, and later to South Africa at a time when that country was in the grip of apartheid.
‘‘I lived in a high rise in Johannesburg and there people had a siege mentality. They were scared to go out. They just stayed home and drank and watched state TV, which was terrible,’’ he remarked on that period.
He worked for the Sunday Times which had four separate editions for different racial groups. There were even four sets of staff to write the copy and although they all worked in the same building and were able to mix during the working day, social contact was strictly prohibited.
‘‘It was tragic really.’’
He recalled how the best reporter and photographer were both black. The fact they were paid the lowest wages was the worst part of ‘‘the wicked system’’.
Urlich returned to New Zealand in the late 1970s, working at The Ensign community newspaper in Gore, where he was able to enjoy his other great interests, tramping and climbing.
But the intrepid reporter had always felt called to a vocation in the church. He felt he could make a difference to the ordinary person of faith.
So in 1978 he entered the seminary at Mosgiel.
After four years he was ordained and placed in Palmerston North. Over the ensuing years his work with the Catholic Church took him all over New Zealand from Wellington, Whitianga and Lower Hutt in the North Island to Reefton and Kaiko¯ura in the south. In Kaiko¯ura he led his flock for 16 years.
He was also was a Hospital Chaplain at Wellington Hospital and Mary Potter Hospice for three years.
Father Michael McCabe from Our Lady of Kapiti said his longtime friend had ‘the common touch’’.
He was a gifted preacher who maintained that a good sermon was no longer than eight minutes, said Fr McCabe, who ordained Urlich.
‘‘He did not put on airs and graces. He combined faith and reason during his distinguished and compassionate career.
‘‘He was known as a priest of great compassion who was at home on the peripheries. That is where he made his greatest impression – with the sick, the frail, and the elderly.’’
He had a great passion for justice and for the underdog and those on the margins, the poor, the migrant, the first generation New Zealander.
Urlich once said people always asked him why he made the decision to change paths quite late in his life.
‘‘I just thought I’d have a go at priesthood and the amazing part is that I have no regrets,’’ he said in a 2007 interview.
‘‘Some people have said to me you have had the best of both worlds and I guess they are right.’’
Sources: Kaiko¯ura Star, Marlborough Express, Father Michael McCabe.
Father Eric Urlich spent the first part of his life as a journalist before committing to the church at the age of 50.