Bishop of the Last Frontier
Serving the geographically largest U.S. diocese involves immense challenges and blessings
New Year’s Eve 2014 found newly ordained Bishop Chad Zielinski carrying a duffle bag across the black tarmac of the Fairbanks airport. In the darkness of a northern winter morning, broken only by the glare of sodium lights on snow mounds, he was in line to board a small twin-engine prop flying to Alaska’s central Yukon.
Bishop Zielinski was no stranger to small aircraft and remote locations. He had served 14 years as a military chaplain, with three tours of duty in war zones. He had merely traded in Afghanistan’s dust for Alaska’s snow. What was unfamiliar was the destination — Nulato, a small village sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, roughly 300 miles west of Fairbanks.
With a smile, Bishop Zielinski recalled that morning flight and said, “Looking down from the plane in the growing light, the white expanse of snow seemed to stretch on forever.”
From takeoff to landing, it was starting to sink in: he was now head of the geographically largest diocese in the United States.
AN UNEXPECTED CALL
The number of practicing Catholics in the Diocese of Fairbanks hovers around 10,000, making it, from one perspective, among the smallest dioceses in the country. The borders of the diocese, however, encompass more than 400,000 square miles — almost twice the area of Texas. Hundreds of miles of tundra, forests, rivers and mountains separate most of the diocese’s 46 parishes; only nine parishes can be reached by road. Flying is the surest way to reach rural parishes. Getting back home is another matter.
Weather systems in Alaska come in fast and hard. A few weeks following Bishop Zielinski’s ordination, one priest found his short visit to the most remote parish in the diocese — located on Little Diomede Island at the center of the Bering Strait — extended to 39 days. Arctic storms and mechanical problems had grounded all helicopter flights for over a month. Mother Nature’s unpredictability means that those ministering in the Diocese of Fairbanks routinely block out two days on either end of village trips.
Bishop Zielinski was prepared to roll the dice on his first trip to the interior. After discovering that the people of Nulato and Koyukuk hadn’t seen a bishop in years, he promised to visit, and before long he was seated in a small plane as it nosed its way westward to a village of 300 souls.
Living in Alaska seems to agree with Bishop Zielinski, who recognizes God’s providence in the steps that have led him there.
“I wanted to go to Alaska ever since I did a report on it in fourth grade,” he said. “In fact, two days after I graduated from high school, a buddy and I drove there to work in a fish processing plant for the summer.”
Born in Detroit in 1964, the oldest of five children, Chad Zielinski was raised on a 120-acre farm in Alpena, Mich., where much of his youth was filled with outdoor activities.
As a college freshman, with plans to eventually study law, he decided to join the Air Force.
It was about this time that Airman Zielinski also joined the Knights of Columbus.
“Growing up in Alpena we had four churches with very active Knights,” the bishop recalled. “They really modeled Christian service. And I’m proud to report that Alaska’s Knights of Columbus were recognized at the Supreme Convention as having the highest number of service hours of any councils on record. They are so generous with our needs.”
While stationed in Idaho, Airman Zielinski became good friends with the chaplain, and it gradually dawned on him that he had a vocation to the priesthood. At the end of his military service, he began his seminary formation and was ordained a priest of Gaylord, Mich., in 1996.
Five years later, in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Father Zielinski learned there was a shortage of Catholic chaplains in the Armed Forces. Beginning in 2002, he served as an Air Force chaplain at bases throughout the United States and served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several times he celebrated Mass while mortar and rocket fire punctuated the liturgy.
In October 2014, while serving at Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks, Father Zielinski received a call from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States. The archbishop said Pope Francis was asking Father Zielinski to serve as the bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks.
“I kept asking him, ‘How can this be?’ It made no sense,” Bishop Zielinski said, laughing as he recalled the conversation. “The nuncio was most gracious with me.”
It was the first time an active U.S. chaplain had been tapped to be the ordinary of a diocese — but there was no mistake. On Dec. 15, 2014, Chad Zielinski was ordained the sixth bishop of Fairbanks.
Bishop Zielinski’s initial visits to Nulato and Koyukuk were well received and allowed him to experience firsthand the dynamics of village life. Most rural Alaskan communities now have running water and boast a school, health clinic, village council building and at least a small runway for flights. Cell phone coverage is expanding slowly across the state.
These modern amenities are welcomed, yet age-old traditions remain. The diocese is home to at least three distinct Alaska Native peoples: the Yup’ik/Cup’ik Eskimo, the Athabaskan Indian people, and the Inupiat Eskimo. Each people possesses its own rich culture and language.
Bishop Zielinski has observed there is something reminiscent of early Christian communities in the generosity of Alaska Native peoples.
“The people are warm and welcoming, and they are excited about their faith,” Bishop Zielinski said. “You see villages of 800 people, and 200 show up for Mass. All these people have blessed my life.”
Each summer, other activities are put on hold so the harvest of salmon can be caught, dried and stored for the year. And in the villages, if someone catches an abundance of fish, or brings down a moose, no one lacks for meat. The bounty is shared. The traditional potlatch gathering likewise provides an opportunity for people from various villages to share food, gifts and song.
There are many challenges facing the people of Alaska, too. Rural Alaska sees high rates of suicide, substance abuse, violence and sexual assaults. Media influence has contributed to a further erosion of values and cultural identity. There are economic hurdles as well, as most villages are only partly run on cash economies. Jobs are scarce, and prices would stagger the average American consumer: $11 for a gallon of milk, $8 for a pound of ground beef or gallon of gas. What isn’t grown or harvested must be flown or barged in before ice locks up rivers.
As a result, rather than parishes supporting the bishop’s programs, the diocese must financially support parish life in most of its communities. Besides being the nation’s geographically largest diocese, Fairbanks is also the only one to fall under the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Church’s missionary wing. Without the generosity of donors from around the United States, the Church in northern Alaska would not exist as it is.
However, Bishop Zielinski identifies an even more pressing need: priests. In the 19th century, the Society of Jesus served the entire territory. As recently as the 1980s, parishes were likely assigned their own Jesuit priest and were assisted by other men and women religious. Over time, the number of priests serving in the region decreased, and there are currently only 15 serving the diocese’s 46 parishes.
Some priests must circulate among six or eight remote villages, and Mass is a rarity for most rural Catholics in the diocese. Priests stationed in Fairbanks now routinely fly out to parishes across the diocese, and Bishop Zielinski says he has learned that travel is an essential part of serving the people of God in the last frontier.
“It’s wearing on your system,” he said, “and flying is one of our largest expenses. But it is what we are called to do.”
If he is daunted by the task before him, Bishop Zielinski doesn’t show it. He has discussed his needs with his brother bishops in the United States, and he has also established contacts with missionary dioceses around the world that are blessed with an abundance of priests. But he knows he must move with discernment.
“Not every priest is called to serve in the far north, because winters are dark and cold,” he said. “But the hospitality of the people is warm and gracious, and we invite priests who feel drawn to serve here to contact us. For the right servant, who will walk with the people, this frontier can be a paradise.”
ROBERT HANNON is the former chancellor of the Diocese of Fairbanks and continues to assist the diocese with special projects.