Cornell alumnus appointed as bishop in the Catholic Church

The following article was written by Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun Publisher Jake Krob and was featured in the April 27 edition. Zinkula graduated from Cornell College in 1979.

Msgr. Thomas Zinkula
Msgr. Thomas Zinkula

Pope Francis has appointed a Mount Vernon native to a big position in the Catholic Church in Iowa.

Msgr. Thomas Zinkula has been named the bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, with the announcement made Wednesday, April 19, on Zinkula’s 60th birthday. An official installation ceremony is set for June 22.

Zinkula, known as Father Tom to most in Mount Vernon-Lisbon’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, will be the top leader of a diocese that covers the southeastern one-fourth of the state. It includes about 95,000 Catholics, 78 parishes, five high schools, one university and three Catholic hospitals.

With the appointment, he becomes one of four bishops for the church in Iowa; one of just 277 active bishops nationally. He’s the ninth bishop in the history of Davenport diocese, replacing Bishop Martin Amos, who is retiring. Amos said Zinkula is “the answer to our prayers.”

Jerome Hanus, former archbishop of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, where Zinkula has spent his career, said the appointment was good news for all in the Diocese of Davenport.

“The clergy, religious and lay faithful will soon learn what a wonderful Easter gift they have received,” Hanus said. “We in the Archdiocese of Dubuque have experienced bishop-elect Zinkula as a very talented and dedicated priest. With his calm and competent demeanor, he has served so well in several different positions. We thank him for sharing his gifts with us and assure him of our prayers as he moves a little bit south to serve God and the members of the Diocese of Davenport.”

For his part, Zinkula praised his upbringing in Mount Vernon and the role the community played preparing him for his appointment.

“That was the foundation for my entire life,” he said.

A big position
In the teachings of the Catholic Church, bishops are considered successors of Jesus’s 12 apostles.

Electing a new bishop starts at the diocese level, works its way through several officials in the Catholic Church, and ends at Rome, where the pope makes the official appointment.

Zinkula received the call Saturday, April 8, and said “yes” the next day, Palm Sunday.

At first, he said he thought it might be a practical joke.

He is currently rector of St. Pius X Seminary in Dubuque, working with men joining the priesthood. They were having a retreat, and after a three-hour break in which Zinkula was walking and jogging, he returned to find a missed call from Washington, D.C. It was from the nuncio, the pope’s representative in the United States.

“Why would the nuncio be calling little old me?” he said, adding that seminarians are prone to practical jokes and he wondered if this was one of them.
It was no joke.

“This is a very big deal,” said Sue Schettler, who leads St. John’s in Mount Vernon as parish life coordinator. “He will be the shepherd of a big territory for the larger worldwide church.”

He’ll also have a big role in the church in the state and country. For example, Iowa’s bishops have an annual conference, commenting on various aspects of moral and social life. He’ll also be a part of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, which does the same. And he’ll have a stronger connection to Rome – for example, participating if there’s a Vatican Council called.

Although Zinkula said it was a “yes,” he said it’s difficult to leave the Diocese of Dubuque, where he’s served since being ordained as a priest in 1990. Yet, he said: “I like new challenges – new adventures. I’m curious by nature.”

Called to serve
The son of Mary and the late Robert Zinkula, Zinkula arrived to the priesthood later than most.

A 1975 graduate of Mount Vernon High School, he was a standout student and athlete, and was honored for that with an achievement hall of fame award this past year by the Mount Vernon Alumni Association.

As a student, he was valedictorian of his class. On the gridiron, he was an all-conference and all-state honoree. He attended Cornell College, where his academic and football success grew. Graduating summa cum laude with a degree in math and economics/ business, he worked for a year in the insurance industry as an actuary, earned a law degree from the University of Iowa, and worked as an attorney in Cedar Rapids for three years.

His mother, Mary, said her son sometimes spoke about the priesthood, recounting dreams and other signs. Zinkula said faith and the church were important to him, his parents and eight siblings growing up as a farm family in Mount Vernon.

He said the most significant call to serve came as a high schooler. Fr. Bob Ferring was the priest at St. John’s, and Zinkula admired that he was a farm kid, baseball player and academic. Priests were asked to send names to the diocese of young men who might consider priesthood. Ferring sent in Zinkula’s name, and Zinkula received a letter and pamphlet in the mail.

“I was honored,” Zinkula said. Although he didn’t respond, he held on to the letter, and still has it today. “A seed was planted, and it laid dormant for awhile,” he said.

He said there wasn’t one thing that led to the priesthood, but many smaller things. He began the process at 28 and was ordained at 33.

Mount Vernon-Lisbon matters
Zinkula said the relationships, education and experiences he had in Mount Vernon formed him into the person he became.

“My core being developed during those years,” he said.

Zinkula served his first mass as a priest at St. John’s, his home parish. And he’s regularly come back to preside at services, especially to fill in during busy times for the priest that serves Mount Vernon-Lisbon and two other parishes.

His last mass here was Easter Sunday. Zinkula said it was extra special for him as he knew of his new assignment at the time.

“I was very, very, very aware that this was my last time there,” Zinkula said.

St. John’s is in the Dubuque Diocese. Zinkula said moving to the Davenport Diocese is “like coming home.” His family helped build Sts. Peter and Paul, the former Catholic Church south of Lisbon/Mount Vernon. It’s in the Davenport Diocese and Zinkula was baptized there.

The right fit
Zinkula’s mother, Mary, said she’s very proud of her son.

“He’s accomplished quite a lot,” she said.

Schettler said Zinkula’s humility, strong faith, intelligence and thoughtfulness will serve him well as a bishop.

He also has a lot of experience. He served as an associate pastor, on the church’s tribunal (including as a judge) and was the vicar (a deputy to the bishop) in the Cedar Rapids area before becoming head of the seminary in Dubuque.

Zinkula said he’s ready for the new challenge as bishop, and says he has a lot to learn.

At a press conference announcing his appointment, he joked about the “big pointy hat” bishops wear.

“When to put it on, when to take it off – I don’t have a clue,” he said.

At 60, he said he thought he might “ease out” – continue at the seminary, maybe work as a parish priest, then retire.

“Man, this is a whole different thing,” he said.

He said he’s excited to take over as bishop.

“I’m a little anxious – but a lot excited,” he said, adding he’s aware being a bishop is “daunting,” but looks forward to getting to know those in the diocese and getting to work as a new church leader.