Recently you read on this website about the two priest-graduates of Sacred Heart who have been ordained as bishops just this past year: Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle (Class of 1995, ordained June 14) and Bishop Steven Raica of the Diocese of Gaylord (Class of 1974, ordained August 28). Hardly had the electronic ink dried on the Mosaic articles when Pope Francis again appointed another Sacred Heart graduate to the episcopacy.
On December 19, 2014, Most Rev. Chad Zielinski was ordained the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks. The 1996 graduate of the seminary and priest of the Diocese of Gaylord became the twenty-ninth Sacred Heart alumnus to serve the Church as a bishop when was ordained by Most Rev. Roger Schweitz, Archbishop of Anchorage, at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I was completely shocked,” Bishop Zielinski said after the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, notified him of his appointment in November. “I just couldn’t believe it. It is nothing I have ever even thought about.” Bishop Zielinski had 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 an active military chaplain serving in the Archdiocese for Military Services has been made the spiritual head of a diocese. He is also the first priest from the Gaylord diocese to become a bishop.
“It was exciting news to hear about Bishop Zielinski’s appointment,” says Sacred Heart’s rector, Msgr. Todd Lajiness. “We at the seminary are especially proud that he becomes another priest-graduate to serve the Church as a diocesan ordinary. And we are equally proud of his selfless service to our country as a U.S. Air Force military chaplain.”
Monsignor asks the Sacred Heart community and supporters to join him in gratitude and prayer as Bishop Zielinski begins his episcopal ministry in the northernmost part of the United States. Monsignor notes that Bishop Zielinski is the second member of the Sacred Heart Class of 1996 to be named a bishop, the other being Most Rev. Michael Byrnes, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit and former vice rector of the seminary.
Bishop Byrnes says that he and his classmates “are especially grateful for the enduring friendship” of Bishop Zielinski, recalling that the bishop was the one who initiated class get-togethers after graduation. “Fairbanks is a little far for regular visits, but I’m sure we will figure something out!” Bishop Byrnes laughs.
“He is a genuinely ‘battle-tested’ servant of the Gospel,” continues Bishop Byrnes, referring to Bishop Zielinski’s courageous work in the military. “All of us who are honored to be counted among his friends are sobered by the challenges he will face and encouraged by the wisdom of the Holy Father to appoint such a worthy bishop for this task.”
Bishop Zielinski, 50, was born in Detroit although his family moved to Alpena, Michigan, to a 120-acre farm, when he was an infant. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school. After completing his four-year military obligation, he earned a BA in Philosophy from Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon before entering Sacred Heart for his Master of Divinity graduate studies. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Gaylord in June 1996.
Inspired by the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attack, then-Father Zielinski asked for and received permission from his ordinary, Bishop Patrick Cooney, to serve the nation as a military chaplain. He completed three tours of duty, including ministering to soldiers in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. He served as chaplain to the cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, as well.
The Fairbanks diocese encompasses the remote northern region of Alaska and has about 11,000 Catholics. It had been without a bishop since September 2013, when Bishop Donald Kettler was appointed bishop of the Diocese St. Cloud in September 2013. Fairbanks had since been under the direction of Archbishop Schwietz.
Says Bishop Zielinski about his upcoming ministry, “No human person could ever have script something like this. 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.”