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Chaplain's 50-year journey to become bishop of Fairbanks diocese

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

"I've always had a committed faith and a love for God, but never really thought of becoming a priest until I was enlisted in the Air Force," said Chaplain (Maj.) Chad Zielinski.

The Michigan native, who currently serves as the 354th Fighter Wing deputy wing chaplain, was ordained bishop of the Fairbanks Catholic diocese in a ceremony Dec. 15. This requires a dedication to an area the size of Texas, much of which isn't accessible by road.

Born in 1964, in Alpena, Michigan, to a school teacher father and social worker mother, Zielinski said his family was very committed to their faith, attending church and religious education every week.

"My parents were very loving and compassionate and invested a lot of time into making sure we were a family unit when it came to church," he said. "My father was always challenging his kids to better themselves and to learn more. Education to him was a way to better your life."

In addition to its commitment to the church, the family was also involved with of the Boy Scouts of America. This largely contributed to Zielinski's decision to join the Air Force in 1983.

"Leadership, organization, relationships, attaching one's self to ideals, challenging you to advance and progress among the ranks were all things instilled by the scouts that drove my interest in the military," he said.

After graduating from high school and spending a summer in Valdez, Alaska, as a commercial salmon fisherman, Zielinski joined the Air Force and was stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, where he worked in the 366th Supply Squadron. Staying committed to his faith, he spent a lot of time with the Catholic chaplain who ultimately encouraged him to join seminary after his enlistment was up.

"Being involved in the chapel program as a young Airman was a huge impetus for me," he said. "The Air Force has a lot of good people and you just push yourself to do the right thing for these great people."

After extensive studies in Oregon and Michigan while serving as a reservist in the Air Force, Zielinski was finally ordained a priest. Logistics forced him to separate completely from being enlisted, so he could become a chaplain candidate.

"I didn't think I'd ever come back to active duty after becoming a priest in 1996, but this wasn't the case," he said.

After serving as a pastor of three parishes for six years, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed his outlook on active duty.

"This patriotic sense was immediately rekindled within me," Zielinski said.

There was a great need for chaplains at the time and Zielinski took this as an opportunity to serve others, something he said has been a common thread throughout his life, and which has been noticed by his colleagues.

Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, the Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska, who has served as apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Fairbanks since November 2013, praised Zielinski's servitude.

"Zielinski exemplifies many of the qualities needed to serve the people of the Diocese of Fairbanks," Schweitz said. "He has learned to work with people from all backgrounds, and do so under the stresses of war. Yet he is also humble and prayerful. I understand why the Holy Father chose him as a servant leader for Fairbanks."

War has marked every service member's career for more than a decade and Zielinski is no exception. He deployed to Iraq twice and also to Afghanistan, working with U.S. Army infantry units during each rotation.

"These were exciting, rewarding and powerful experiences," he said. "I saw some pretty horrific things as an Air Force chaplain working with the Army covering 18 combat outposts. It's a miracle I'm still around today to serve; God obviously has a plan for me."

Working with such a diverse group of people during his active-duty years has culminated in many opportunities for this leader.

"The Air Force has afforded me the opportunity through education and life experiences to really hone in on what it means to be a leader," Zielinski said. "All of those leadership opportunities in 12 years as an active-duty chaplain are priceless; you could never put a dollar value on it."

According to the Pacific Air Forces command chaplain, this is the first time an active-duty Airman has been chosen for a position of this magnitude.

"Chaplain Zielinski is an extraordinary officer who has served in a series of high-profile positions during his career, including ministry to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy and serving as the face of the Chaplain Corps on the Air Force Recruiting Service team," said Chaplain (Col.) Dondi Costin, the Pacific Air Forces command chaplain. "More importantly, he's served alongside warriors in combat when and where our nation needed him the most. Father Zielinski represents the very best our Air Force has to offer, and, although I hate to see him leave active duty, I'm thrilled for those in the Diocese of Fairbanks who will benefit from his humble, visionary servant leadership.

"Thankfully, a large number of those beneficiaries belong to our military family, and I know for certain they'll be in the best of hands," Costin added. "I'm equally grateful that Chaplain Zielinski has been granted the opportunity to continue serving Eielson Airmen as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve. As Bishop of Fairbanks, he'll have the best of both worlds - and so will we."