Father John Ulrich, S.M. Returns: A Reunion of Past and Present at Marist School

For over a century, Marist School has stood as a pillar of Catholic educational excellence in Atlanta. Its enduring success and rich history are deeply intertwined with the steadfast presence and devotion of Marist priests. Throughout its storied past, the school has continued to flourish since its founding by the Society of Mary, with Marist priests providing faithful guidance from the beginning. While the Marist priests have long prepared the school community for the shift to lay leadership, we now joyfully celebrate the privilege of welcoming back Father John Ulrich, S.M. as he returns to Marist School as chaplain in 2023.
Since 1901, Marist priests have been called upon by the Society of Mary to contribute their gifts and service to Marist School in various capacities. Father Ulrich has made meaningful contributions to the school’s history, with a legacy spanning several decades. Generations of Marist families have been fortunate to have Father Ulrich administer sacraments and rites including marriage, baptism, and funerals which make this lifelong impact even more far-reaching.

He first arrived at Marist School in December 1973, taking over responsibilities for upper-level history and social studies instruction while covering for a teacher on leave. The next year, he transitioned to the theology department where he taught religion classes for the next 11 years, also serving as the theology department chair. In 1988, following his ordination, Father Ulrich returned to Marist for his second teaching assignment, which lasted four years.

Most recently, during the 2023-2024 school year, he assumed the role of school chaplain. Father Ulrich gave the homily at the opening school-year Mass of the Holy Spirit on August 23, using the opportunity to echo the words of the founder of the Marist Brothers, Saint Marcellin Champagnat, quoting, “If you want to teach young people, you must first love them.” Father Ulrich promised the students across all grades gathered in Centennial Center, “That is my goal, and that is the goal of all our teachers and staff: to love you.”

Throughout his career, Father Ulrich has profoundly enriched the Marist School community and has played a pivotal role in shaping many of the defining features of a Marist education, particularly the retreat program. It is not hard to see why. He is a regular fixture outside the campus ministry office during class changes and holds the cafeteria door open for everyone with a contented patience that can only be described as inspired by Mary. “He knows that by being seen regularly by our students, they will be more likely to stop by and talk with him,” said Director of Campus Ministry Mr. Brian Freel.

Father Ulrich fondly remembers his early years at Marist. In those days, his title of Brother John carried an added sense of affection when spoken by his students, many of whom saw themselves as younger brothers to him. Now, 50 years from his arrival at 3790 Ashford Dunwoody Road, he reflects on Marist’s ability to grow and adapt while staying true to its founding mission and values, which continue to thrive today. In the 1970s, Marist did not yet have the robust campus ministry department it does now, operating in addition to its theology department, and it underwent the transformation to become co-ed in 1976. Father Ulrich championed both these evolutions, believing that such changes would help the school offer a more holistic education for its students over time.

Notably during this era, Father Ulrich established the retreat program, originally known as Emmaus Club. When Father Ulrich left Marist in 1985, hundreds of students had enthusiastically participated in the opportunity to attend a Marist School retreat. In 2024, Marist Campus Ministry will chaperone the 200th Emmaus retreat. The student-led retreat program has flourished and transformed over the past four decades, currently boasting a participation rate of 94% among students of all faiths. Retreats are widely recognized as a defining element of the Marist School experience, leaving a lasting impact on countless alumni as they reflect upon their spiritual formation at Marist. This school year, Father Ulrich will officiate Mass at each Emmaus retreat.

Father Ulrich took his vows and was ordained in December 1986. Two years later, while serving as a vocation director, he traveled regularly around the country while residing at the Marist School rectory. He requested a part-time teaching assignment to reconnect with Marist students, and he enjoyed fulfilling this role for four more years. In 1996, Father Ulrich embarked on an extended period of travel with assignments across the nation in various positions, often assisting schools as a teacher or campus minister. Starting in 2003, he and Father Kevin Duggan, S.M., spent 14 years as campus ministers at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California. During their time there, Father Ulrich frequently crossed paths with J. D. Childs, now Marist School’s president, who was the president and principal of the neighboring Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School.

At the end of 2020, Fathers Ulrich and Duggan were reassigned to the Atlanta area, where they served together as parochial vicars at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Brookhaven. Father Ulrich has once again been called upon to serve Marist School, a source of celebration for many, who feel that his return is like a homecoming not only for Father Ulrich but also for the alumni who were once in his classes.

This summer at Lake Lanier, members of the Class of 1983—who celebrated their 40-year class reunion in April—gathered to celebrate the occasion of Father Ulrich’s return to Marist. The alumni shared warm memories from their time in Father Ulrich’s classes, many of which he insists—with a laugh—must be “embellished.” He greatly enjoyed reuniting with his former students at the recent Parents’ Night in School on September 7. While parents had the opportunity to visit their children’s classrooms and meet their teachers, Father Ulrich greeted many past students who now have children enrolled at Marist and walking the same hallways where they once walked. This experience is deeply rewarding for any educator, as it offers the opportunity to witness the positive impact of their teaching in the lives of those they once taught.

Mr. Freel expressed the significance of Father Ulrich returning to campus, saying, “Education bestows upon us the gift and challenge of nurturing young minds for eight hours a day, hoping that they retain the essence of what we strive to impart. When our students return and can recognize familiar Marist faces, they reminisce about the invaluable guidance teachers like Father Ulrich provided during their formative years. Often, as educators, we remain unaware of the impact we leave behind. Yet, this is an exception—Father Ulrich can reconnect with his former students and witness the tangible difference he has made in their lives.” The insight gained from this memory and reconnection will benefit current students by providing a long-term perspective on the school’s strengths and opportunities for enhancement, and will lend inspiration for the years to come.

One of Father Ulrich’s first new endeavors this school year has been to form a causal student group called the “Friends of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati,” inspired by the dynamic global patron of youth and young adults. Blessed Pier lived energetically with enthusiastic devotion to the Eucharist and service to the poor, while also maintaining a reputation for enjoying mountain climbing and playing pranks on his friends. Father Ulrich found Blessed Pier’s relatability appealing as an inspiration for students to engage more in their faith through someone who exudes life and passion. As evidenced in several yearbook outtakes over the decades, Father Ulrich’s playful qualities mirror those of Blessed Pier, showcasing their shared abilities to connect with youth through a genuine and vibrant spirit.

“Earlier this summer, when I was thinking about my ministry here at Marist, I decided that he would be a good example for students. I asked him to pray for me and our students,” Father Ulrich said. Marist students interested in being “Friends of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati” are invited to join Father Ulrich to celebrate the Eucharist in Esmond Brady Memorial Chapel every Friday during Activity Period, as their busy schedules allow.

Father Ulrich also will serve on the Marist School Board of Trustees, filling the vacancy left by Father Thomas E. Ellerman, S. M. ’58, who passed away in September. With Father Ulrich's invaluable perspective on the Board of Trustees in addition to his reliable presence in the hallways of St. Peter Chanel Hall, we trust that his guidance will leave a profound and positive impact on our students' development.

Upon Father Ulrich’s original departure, the Class of 1985 dedicated the yearbook, then called the “Arcade”, in his name. They wrote, “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’.” We are humbly grateful that God answered this prayer for our students once more. Welcome home, Father Ulrich.

Marist School

3790 Ashford Dunwoody Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30319-1899
(770) 457-7201
An Independent Catholic School of the Marist Fathers and Brothers