Catholic priest had ink in his veins

Kaikoura Star - - OUT & ABOUT - BESS MAN­SON

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.

PHOTO: CRAIG SIMCOX

Fa­ther Eric Ur­lich spent the first part of his life as a jour­nal­ist be­fore com­mit­ting to the church at the age of 50.

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