Pope names Fairbanks, Alaska, bishop to head Diocese of New Ulm, Minn.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope Francis has named Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of Fairbanks, Alaska, to head the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota.

Since 2014, the 57-year-old prelate has served as the fifth bishop of Fairbanks. The diocese covers over 409,000 square miles of Alaska's northern region, or about two-thirds of the entire state. It is the largest U.S. diocese geographically.

In New Ulm, he succeeds Bishop John M. LeVoir, who resigned Aug. 6, 2020, after heading the diocese for 12 years. He was 74 and just a few months shy of 75, the age when bishops are required by canon law to turn in their resignation to the pope.

Bishop Zielinski's appointment was announced July 12 in Washington by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S. His installation Mass will be Sept. 27.

"It is with great joy that I received the news of Bishop Zielinski's appointment," said Msgr. Douglas L. Grams, who has served as New Ulm's diocesan administrator since Aug. 10, 2020. "The bishop brings pastoral experience and is known for his humility and compassion as a shepherd."

"I am most grateful to our Holy Father for entrusting me to serve as the shepherd of the Diocese of New Ulm," Bishop Zielinski said in a statement. "As I leave the vast expanse of Northern Alaska, I am fully aware of the countless blessings I received from 46 parishes.

"The faithful of the entire Diocese of Fairbanks patiently helped form me to be the shepherd I am today."

Of the diocese's 46 parishes, only nine are accessible by car. The remaining parishes are located in Alaska Native villages and have to be visited by bush plane, boat or snow machine.

Established Aug. 8, 1962, the northern Alaska diocese currently has 22 priests, 22 deacons, four religious sisters and two religious brothers. 

"Our Native Alaskan brothers and sisters have opened my mind and heart to the cultural beauty and richness of their traditional way of life," Bishop Zielinski added. "I come to the Diocese of New Ulm with the same open heart and mind, eager to learn and encounter new blessings as I visit parishes and families in this beautiful prairie land of south and west-central Minnesota."

"Guided by the Holy Spirit," he said, "together we continue our journey of faith into a new era of peace filled with hope in Jesus Christ."

Father Robert Fath, vicar general for the Diocese of Fairbanks, thanked Bishop Zielinski for his years as shepherd to the faithful of northern Alaska, saying he has been "a blessing" to the diocese and its communities.

"Although we are saddened by his impending departure, we send our best wishes and prayers with him to Minnesota as he begins this next chapter in his ministry to the people of God," the priest said. "We pray that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, will quickly appoint a new shepherd for the faithful of the Diocese of Fairbanks."

At a news conference in New Ulm, Bishop Zielinski said it was "great learning the Native Alaska culture, hunting and fishing with them" and he looks forward to touring his new diocese. "It would be great if somebody let me drive their tractor," added the prelate.

On a more serious note, he urged the faithful of the Minnesota diocese to let their hearts "be filled and consumed with Christ."

"Have hope," Bishop Zielinski said. "There are people all around full of darkness and evil. Give hope to those that don't have it. You're created in the likeness of God. You are important. Be a light for others in this world."

Chad William Zielinski was born Sept. 8, 1964, in Detroit and grew up on a farm in Alpena in the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan. He is the eldest of five children of Donald and Linda Zielinski.

After graduating from Alpena High School in 1982, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and, while stationed in Idaho, attended Boise State University.

It was at this time he felt a call to serve God as a priest, so when he completed his tour of duty in 1986, he entered Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, where he earned a bachelor's degree with honors 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 degree in 1996.

He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Patrick R. Cooney at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord June 8, 1996.

After ordination, he served as associate pastor for Immaculate Conception Parish in Traverse City, Michigan. In 1998, he became pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Empire and St. Rita-St. Joseph in Maple City. He was elected to serve on the priests' council in 1999 and became pastor for administrative affairs of the diocesan mission to Hispanics in 2000.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, then-Father Zielinski felt a strong need to minister to those in military service. Aware of the great need for Catholic military chaplains, Bishop Cooney released him to serve in the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.

In 2002, he began his chaplaincy at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

From 2003 to 2005, he was stationed in Suffolk, England, before returning to the United States, where he was assigned to the Air Force Recruiting Service headquarters at Randolph Air Force Base in Schertz, Texas.

In 2009, he was appointed chaplain to the Catholic cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 2012, he served as chaplain to the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.

In the course of his military career, Bishop Zielinski served three tours of duty in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I guess the church has prepared me for the military and the military has prepared me for the church," he once wrote. "We receive orders and we go, whether coming from a general or the pope."

He has received numerous military awards and decorations for his service, and was promoted to the rank of major in July 2013.

Established Nov. 18, 1957, the Diocese of New Ulm is home to nearly 50,933 Catholics. Considered one of the most rural dioceses in the country, it is comprised of 15 counties in south and west-central Minnesota.

There are currently 59 parishes, served by 32 assigned diocesan priests, 17 permanent deacons, 13 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools.