By Mike Viola, Originally published in OMI USA newsletter
According to an internet description, Comfort, Texas, is “a Hill County gem.” Just a 30-minute drive from San Antonio, much of the town is designated a National Historic District.
Father David Ullrich, OMI, was born in that little town in 1942. While he wouldn’t exactly consider himself “historic,” in his 60 years as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, he has helped make Oblate history in the many ways he has fulfilled and continues to fulfil his missionary vocation.
When Fr. David entered the Oblates in 1962, he began a journey that would immerse him in many different cultures, far removed from that little town in Texas.
In the early 60s, the Oblates were experimenting with a program where they would send some of their young seminarians to complete their studies in a culture they were called to serve. Japan, Brazil, and Chile were just some of the places they would go, first to learn the language and culture, and then to study in the language of their new home.
After studying philosophy at the Oblate Scholasticate in Mississippi and a year of theology in San Antonio, Fr. David volunteered for the Oblate mission in Japan in 1967. After two years of language study, he resumed his theological studies at Sophia University in Tokyo and was ordained a priest in 1971. He then spent three years in parish and seminary formation ministry in Japan.
- United States
As important as the missionary presence in Japan was, Fr. David increasingly felt the need to respond to the rapidly growing need for Hispanic ministry in the United States. He returned home in 1975 and was assigned to the Western Province. There he exercised over 20 years of parish ministry, mostly in Latino parishes in California.
In his “free time,” he also obtained a Doctorate in Ministry in 1982 at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, with an emphasis on faith-based small communities. He also honed his skills in Spanish and community formation during his 12 years as pastor in San Fernando, California.
In 1996, his Oblate family called Fr. David to the ministry of administration as Provincial Superior of the Western Province. It was a time of challenge and change as the five provinces of the United States were in serious discussion about merging into one administrative entity. The merger took place in 1999 and Fr. David was asked to serve as one of the full-time Provincial Councilors, based in Washington, D.C., and oversaw the “Mission” in the new United States Province.
In 2005, upon the end of his six-year term on the Provincial Council, Fr. David took a six-month sabbatical teaching English at the Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China. His return to the U.S. was a brief stopover as he went to the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, to be part of the formation team at the pre-novitiate there for one year.
But the God of surprises intervened. After three months in Tijuana, he received a call from the Oblate headquarters in Rome. The Superior General was asking Fr. David to consider accepting an assignment as Superior of the Oblate Delegation in China. The base of the delegation ministry was Hong Kong, where it managed several schools and two parishes.
During his nine-year stint as leader of the China mission, Fr. David and other members of the delegation were able to open two new Oblate locations on the Chinese mainland. Of special significance was the collaboration between the Oblates and a group of lay Catholic volunteers, who arranged medical treatment and care for abandoned handicapped infants from impoverished parts deep within the mainland.
The relationship started one day when Fr. David was explaining to the lay group that the Oblate charism is to reach out to the most abandoned. Whereupon one of the leaders of the ground responded, “who can be more abandoned than an abandoned, handicapped infant left on a doorstep?”
Gradually the Oblates got involved in various aspects of caring for the children and the foster parents. As the infants grew, they were placed in several foster homes with native Catholic foster parents to provide them a semblance of family life until their future was clarified.
The Oblates were also able to reach out to the many Chinese migrant school children in the areas in which they worked. This took several forms. Small study centers were set up where students could do their homework and improve their English. Various activities began and parents were involved in multiple ways. Overseas students came and got involved with the orphan and migrant children.
- Return to United States
After 13 years in China, Fr. David noticed that his body was telling him that it was time to come home. As he says: “I wanted to come back before I needed a walker to get on the plane.” So in 2018 he came back to the U.S. After a couple of months of re-charging, he received his new assignment to his native Texas, as part of the formation team at Borzaga House in San Antonio.
In 2021, Fr. David was presented with a new challenge. He and several other senior Oblates were called by the province to form an Oblate community on the grounds of the La Parra section of the Kennedy Ranch outside Sarita, Texas. For years the ranch had been a spiritual oasis for men and women seeking refreshment for their souls and a deeper union with God. After the scourge of the pandemic, the province decided to re-focus the ministry, continuing to extend hospitality to spiritual searchers, and especially welcoming fellow Oblates in need of rest and a chance of venue.
As Fr. David sees it: “the combination of natural beauty and silence at La Parra provides an exceptional setting in which to feel the closeness of God. We’ve been gifted with this unique environment here. It’s a veritable shrine. In the silence the Word can be heard. The implications for evangelization in today’s society are clear. When we experience this place’s rare desert-like beauty, we are more attracted to the Good, and slowly being opened to the Truth.”
The pace of life at La Parra allows Fr. David to reach out to men incarcerated in three correctional units in south Texas. In some of them, Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation had not been available for three years. Several times a year he takes part in three-day prison retreats. As he drives from the sprawling La Parra Ranch to the different prisons, he feels his mission is in some small way a contribution to sharing the expansiveness of the Gospel with the men confined behind bars.