Joseph Zimmermann was born in Weggis, in the canton of Lucerne and the diocese of Basel, Switzerland, on 29 April 1849. The second oldest of a family of ten, four girls and six boys, he was an intelligent young man and good at his studies. After primary school at Weggis, in 1866-1867 he began his secondary education first in Lucerne and later at St Michael’s Jesuit College, in Fribourg, from 1867-1869. From then until 1871 he studied at St Maurice en Valais, in the Romande region of Switzerland. In 1871 he entered the University of Innsbruck, Austria, where he studied philosophy and science until 1873.
Call to Mission
After graduation, at the age of twenty-three years, the idea of priesthood, always in the background, took hold of him. Unsure of the kind of priesthood to which he was called, he entered the diocesan seminary at Mayence, Germany, in October 1873 to study theology. It was during his first year here, 1873-1874, that he made up his mind to join the SMA, and so in October 1874 he arrived at the SMA Seminary in Lyons. He became a member of the Society on 18 December 1875. Following an illness in the summer of 1876, he was sent to the SMA House in Nice where he was ordained a deacon in the seminary chapel on 23 September 1876 and a Priest on 29 September in the SMA church of the Sacred Heart.
For the first few years of his priesthood Joseph taught dogmatic theology in Lyons. During those years he also undertook a number of fundraising trips in the German speaking countries. He was quite successful both in his preaching and fundraising. The fact that he could speak several languages was a distinct advantage in this work.
On 24 February 1880 he left for Africa and arrived in Lagos on 3 April. However, owing to health problems, he remained in Africa only a few months. On his return, and with first-hand experience of Africa, he was assigned to collect funds in America and in the German-speaking countries. Joseph Zimmermann was good at this work, eloquent, persuasive, and not easily put off by the obstacles which missionary collectors usually experienced.
Among the Irish
In 1882 a new chapter opened in the life of the young priest. The Society’s Irish branch was in crisis. It had been founded in 1878 to attract vocations for work in the Society’s British West African missions. But very few suitable candidates were coming forward and those that were did not persevere. The Society appeared unwelcome in an Ireland where the Church was pre-occupied with local issues – one of which was supplying the Irish Diaspora, to the exclusion of virtually all other apostolates. The cost of maintaining this unproductive SMA enterprise was becoming prohibitive and it was clear that drastic action needed to be taken. In January 1883 Joseph Zimmermann was named Superior and arrived in Cork with a mission to see whether anything could be salvaged.
Here, over the next 28 years, he not only saved the Irish branch of the Society from closure, but built it up until it was to become the first Province of the Society. He achieved this by winning over the local Church to the missionary cause. At the start, little by little, he made friends among the clergy and laity, helping out wherever he was needed. Then, using his considerable powers of eloquence and persuasion, he began to preach the missionary message to a Church which at first did not want to hear, but gradually began to listen. He struck a chord deep in the heart of modern Irish Catholicism, invoking Ireland’s illustrious missionary past between the 6th and 9th century and urging that once more Ireland should take its place among the great missionary nations. He was Founder of the Irish Province of the SMA and one among a handful who can be titled: Founders of the Irish Missionary Movement.
This was not achieved easily. He had difficulties in Ireland itself but also within the Society, particularly from the Lyons Mother House. At that time it was thought that, in order to preserve the unity of the SMA, it was necessary to have one clearly visible centre, where the candidates coming from different countries could be formed and mix together. Zimmermann believed in his heart that there was need to give an Irish face to a French-born Institute, if he wanted to get the bishops, priests, and also the people and benefactors interested.
Irish Province established
Despite the difficulties he met, thanks to his spirit of determination, his know-how, the support of the Irish bishops and his Roman knowledge, Propaganda Fide accepted his point of view though at the same time taking account of the responsibility of the Superior General. The Irish Province was erected on 15 May 1912 but the first Superior was to be Father Stephen Kyne.
Just one year earlier, in June 1911, Joseph Zimmermann had left Ireland to take up a new post in the United States, in the African-American parish of St. Anthony, in Savannah, Georgia. There he was to remain for the remaining ten years of his life. He died on 19 July 1921, unable to take up the invitation of the Irish Province to spend the final years of his life among the Irish members for whom he had laboured so long and so well.