He would have turned 90 in June. He worked in Mong Phok, Burma, for a number of years. Expelled in 1966, he went back to Southeast Asia in 1972 to open a PIME mission in Thailand and evangelise among the Lahu and the Akha.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Today at 1.30 pm, a real missionary left us at the Fang mission, in Thailand’s far north.
Born in Monza in June 1929, Fr Giovanni Zimbaldi was a missionary who lived through "heroic times", that is, times when travel and communications between the villages of this mountainous area were extremely difficult.
Ordained a priest for PIME in 1953, he was initially assigned to teach Latin and Italian in the then minor PIME seminary in Vigarolo Lodigiano.
Later, during a meeting in 1956 with Fr Augusto Lombardi, PIME superior general, Fr Zimbaldi asked “to be assigned to the missions. I don't want to grow old in the Institute's activities in Italy.”
Fr Lombardi asked him: "How old are you?" "27," was the answer. Fr Zimbaldi would later remember that Fr Lombardi laughed that day. Still, in June of that year he eventually ended up in at the mission in Kengtung, Myanmar.
After studying English for a year in Detroit, USA, he travelled to Yangon (Rangoon), then the capital of Myanmar (Burma), on 24 February 1958. From there, he moved to the Diocese of Kengtung.
Here, Fr Zimbaldi was assigned to the Mong Phok mission, some 1,500 metres above sea level, on the border with China, a four days' journey from Kengtung. Here he served for eight years, evangelising among the Lahu, who can be found in great numbers in the area.
In 1966 he was transferred to the Mong Yong mission, which had ben left without a priest for almost ten years, after the last pastor - Fr Heliodorus Farronato - was killed by bandits.
Fr Zimbaldi remained for only three months, then went back to Italy, along with many other missionaries, when the new government issued restrictive laws against foreign missionaries.
Once at home, Fr Zimbaldi was picked as rector of the PIME minor seminary in Vigarolo Lodigiano where he served for three years. On 18 September 1969, he became the rector of the PIME theological seminary in Maryglade, Memphis, Michigan, for another three years.
In May 1972 he received a letter from PIME’s Directorate General offering him the possibility of starting a new mission in Thailand together with the Frs Angelo Campagnoli and Silvano Magistrali.
He arrived in Bangkok on 15 December of that year. Two days later, he was in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, to start his missionary work among the Lahu, in Fang, a town on the border with Myanmar.
Fr Zimbaldi moved permanently to Fang on 1 January 1974 where he remained until his death, except for three years (2006-2008) when he lived in the nearby mission of Mae Suay.
During his 45 years in Thailand, Fr Zimbaldi devoted himself body and soul to the evangelisation of the Lahu and Akha people.
The fruit of his work is visible to everyone: out of the initial group of ten Lahu families who, back in 1972, lived near Fang, came three parish missions (Fang, Mae Suay and Ban Thoet Thai), which now include almost a hundred villages (or 15,000 people).
Fr Zimbaldi paid close attention to children’s education, opening the mission’s doors to hundreds of them so that they could receive a Christian schooling.
The testimonials that are now pouring in are evidence of Fr Zimbaldi’s tireless passion for communicating the Gospel through concrete deeds to meet the needs of the body and soul of the many people who met him.
The publication of liturgical books and catechesis in the Lahu and Akha language confirm not only Fr Zimbaldi's closeness to the culture of these groups – whose language he spoke – but above all his concern for his closest associates, namely catechists, whom he has always considered indispensable help for his work.
He also insisted that the mission needed nuns, who arrived in 2000, when the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation agreed to send some of members to the Fang mission.
His desire to be buried in Fang, among the people he always loved and served, shows a missionary who sought to give his whole life, onto death, in order to bear witness to the Gospel.