Pope Francis has named Dominican Father Steven Maekawa, a former active duty military chaplain, as the next bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska.

The Vatican announced the appointment on July 11. Maekawa will take on the role of leading a diocese that spans more than 400,000 square miles, the largest diocese in the United States geographically.

The 55-year-old Dominican friar has been based in Alaska since 2016, serving as the pastor of Holy Family Old Cathedral in Anchorage. 

Maekawa was awarded a special medal in active duty for his work as a military chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, serving a tour of duty with ground troops in Afghanistan in 2004.

Born in Seattle on Nov. 22, 1967, Maekawa earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Washington before entering religious life in the Dominicans’ Western U.S. province. 

He studied at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California, where he earned a master of divinity degree in 1998, the same year he was ordained to the priesthood.

Maekawa has served as the chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Washington (1998–2002) and as the vocations director of the Western Dominican Province (2007–2015). He ministered in San Francisco and Seattle before moving to Anchorage seven years ago.

In Fairbanks, Maekawa will succeed Bishop Chad Zielinski, whom Pope Francis appointed as the bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, last year.

The Diocese of Fairbanks has 46 Catholic parishes, only nine of which can be reached by car. The new bishop will need to use a bush plane to reach some remote Catholic parishes, including in native Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Inupiat communities.

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The northernmost diocese in the U.S. has a total population of 166,800 people, roughly 11,500 of whom are Catholics. It is also a poor diocese with only eight parishes that are self-supporting. In some remote churches, parishioners are only able to receive sacraments from a priest every two or three months with priests traveling long distances over difficult terrain and harsh weather conditions.