Pope Francis on Tuesday appointed former Air Force chaplain and Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski to lead the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The seat of the Diocese of New Ulm, which covers almost 10,000 square miles southwest of Minneapolis, has been vacant since August 2020, when Bishop John M. LeVoir resigned at age 74 for health reasons.

Zielinski, 57, has been bishop of Fairbanks since 2014. He will be installed in the Diocese of New Ulm on Sept. 27.

Before becoming a bishop, Zielinski served for 12 years as an Air Force chaplain; his final two years he was stationed at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks. He is an avid fisherman.

The Diocese of Fairbanks covers over 409,000 square miles in northern Alaska. The diocese with the largest geographical spread in the U.S., Fairbanks has around 11,500 Catholics and 46 Catholic parishes, only nine of which can be reached by car. The area’s total population is around 166,800.

The Diocese of New Ulm has 59 parishes and serves almost 51,000 Catholics.

Bishop Zielinski was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1964, and is the oldest of five children.

He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after high school. During his military career, he served tours of duty in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

While attending university in Ohio, he felt a call to the priesthood, and after a tour of duty in 1986, entered the seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1996 at the age of 31, and then served for a time in parishes in Empire and Maple City, Michigan.

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After the 2001 terrorist attacks, he felt a call to help those in the military, and his bishop allowed him to join the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

As a military chaplain, he was stationed at different Air Force bases across the U.S., and in Suffolk, England. 

“As I leave the vast expanse of Northern Alaska, I am fully aware of the countless blessings I received from 46 parishes,” Zielinski said in a July 12 statement.

“The faithful of the entire Diocese of Fairbanks patiently helped form me to be the shepherd I am today,” he added. “Our Native Alaskan brothers and sisters have opened my mind and heart to the cultural beauty and richness of their traditional way of life.”

“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,” he said.