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Pope taps military priest as new bishop of Fairbanks

Rev. Chad W. Zielinski, bishop-elect of Fairbanks
Rev. Chad W. Zielinski, bishop-elect of Fairbanks


Archbishop Carlo Viganò, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, announced this morning in Washington, D.C., that Pope Francis has appointed Fr. Chad Zielinski as Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. A priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Bishop-Elect Zielinski has been serving as a Chaplain in the United States Air Force, most recently stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. It is the first time a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord has been named a bishop and also marks the first time an active military chaplain serving in the Archdiocese for Military Services has been made the Ordinary, or spiritual head, of a diocese.

Bishop Elect Zielinski’s ordination and installation is scheduled for 3 PM 15 December 2014 at the Carlson Center, Fairbanks, Alaska. A vesper prayer service will take place the night before at 6 PM at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks. He plans to celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving in the Diocese of Gaylord in January. Those plans are yet to be finalized.

“I was completely shocked,” Bishop-Elect Zielinski exclaimed this week in a phone call. “I just couldn’t believe it. It is nothing I have ever even thought about.”

Bishop-Elect Zielinski, 50, was born in Detroit and is the oldest in a family of five children. His parents, Donald and Linda Zielinski, moved to Alpena in the mid 1960’s where the Bishop-Elect grew up on a 120-acre farm and joined St. Bernard Parish. He received the Sacrament of Confirmation there in 1979 and was ordained a Transitional Deacon there in November of 1995. That one of their own young men has been named a bishop on the very day the parish is celebrating its 150th anniversary is a unique and special blessing.

After graduating from Alpena High School in 1982, Bishop-Elect Zielinski enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and while stationed in Idaho, attended Boise State and Park College. Having completed his tour of duty in 1986, he entered Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy in 1989. He was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Gaylord and entered Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit to complete his spiritual formation and theological studies, receiving his Master of Divinity in 1996. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Patrick R. Cooney at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord on June 8, 1996.

“I feel humbled to be called to the priesthood by Christ and have learned it is not mine alone. I am called to be a servant to the people of God, and pray for God’s grace for love and accept people as they are,” the now Bishop-Elect said at the time of his priestly ordination. That humility and openness to the call of the Lord has echoed throughout his ministry over these past 18 years — and in a special way these past two weeks.

“When Archbishop Viganò called, I just kept saying, ‘you must have me confused with somebody else as I am not qualified to be a bishop. I am the least likely person. I have no doctorate degrees…I am a simple priest. Who would even think I could be a bishop,” Bishop-Elect Zielinski wrote in a letter to his parishioners at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Community at Eielson Air Force Base. Bishop-Elect Zielinski’s first priestly assignment was as Associate Pastor of Immaculate Conception in Traverse City. In 1998, he was appointed Pastor of St. Philip Neri in Empire and St. Rita-St. Joseph in Maple City and was elected to the Presbyteral Council in 1999. In 2000, he was also named Pastor for administrative Affairs of the Diocesan Mission to Hispanics. Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, Bishop-Elect Zielinski felt a special tug on his heart and a passion to serve God by ministering to the men and women who protect our country. Aware of the great need for Catholic military chaplains, Bishop Cooney released him to serve in the Archdiocese for the Military Services and in 2002, Bishop-Elect Zielinski began his chaplaincy at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. From 2003 to 2005 he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England, before returning to the U.S. and being assigned to HQ Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph Air Force Base in Schertz, Texas. Bishop-Elect Zielinski was appointed Roman Catholic Cadet Chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2009 and in 2012 was called to head north to Alaska to serve as Chaplain to the 354 Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, where he was asleep in his bed when the phone rang informing him of the Holy Father’s decision.

Bishop-Elect Zielinski served three tours of duties in war zones, including Baghdad, Iraq and in Afghanistan, providing compassion and spiritual support amidst the chaos of war. “I guess the Church has prepared me for the military and the military has prepared me for the Church. We receive orders and we go whether coming from a general or the pope,” he wrote. He has received numerous military awards and decorations for his service, and was promoted to the rank of Major in July of

The Most Reverend Steven J. Raica, himself ordained as Bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord just three months ago, said the news of the appointment of Bishop-Elect Zielinski was received with great joy.

“Since my own appointment to Gaylord, I have had the pleasure of meeting Fr. Chad and we have spoken several times recently. I am inspired by his faithfulness, his humility and his devotion,” Bishop Raica shared in a written statement.

“Fr. Chad is an avid fisherman. Our Lord seemed to favor fishermen when he called his first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John. They responded with a resounding “YES!” to our Lord’s invitation:

“Follow me!” Now Fr. Chad has heard this invitation from the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, to join him on a unique mission as the Bishop of Fairbanks. Fr. Chad has responded with his resounding “YES!”

The Diocese of Fairbanks is nearly 40 times larger in territory than his home diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, yet is home to only a third as many people. Most of the region is extremely remote, accessible only by plane. With his military experience, Bishop-Elect Zielinski should be well prepared for travelling from place to place in the Cessna aircraft nicknamed “Yellow Bird” recently donated to the diocese.

Reflecting on a scripture he chose at the time of his diaconal ordination, Bishop-Elect Zielinski has selected as his episcopal motto, ILLUM OPORTET CRESCERE, “He must increase…” (John 3:30).

Contemplating the future, Bishop-Elect Zielinski wrote, “No human person could every script something like this, and I certainly would never have thought in a thousand years this would ever happen to me as I have never wanted something like this… My simple approach to this call in life is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul and all my mind and serve my brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Fairbanks. I say this fully knowing I need God’s grace and their talents and abilities to climb a very steep learning curve. We will walk together as sisters and brothers/disciples of Christ showing his kindness, mercy and compassion as we share the joy of the Gospel.”


Complete texts of Bishop-Elect Zielinski’s letter and Bishop Raica’s statement, as well as photos and more are available at

The Diocese of Gaylord encompasses the 21-most northern counties of Michigan’s Lower Pennisula. Within its territory are 80 Catholic parishes, 18 Catholic Schools and numerous related institutions and organizations. Total population of the area exceeds 505,000, of which more than 66,000 are Catholic.
To learn more about the Diocese of Fairbanks, log on to

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