St. John Melchior Bosco is often referred to as Don Bosco – “Don Bosco” means “Father Bosco” in Italian. Don Bosco was a man of bold courage. He was just the instrument which God chose to use to found a religious family dedicated not only to helping and educating the young and the disadvantaged, but to journeying with them towards heaven.
St. John Bosco was born on August 16, 1815, in the small Italian hamlet of Castelnuovo d’Asti, in northern Italy. John had two older brothers, Anthony, who was an older boy from the first marriage of John’s father, Francis. When Francis remarried, he and his new wife Margaret had two sons, Joseph, and later little John. Don Bosco’s father died when he still a toddler (just two years old) and his mother was forced to work long hours in order to support the family, which included the three boys, and her mother-in-law. Margaret played a strong role in Don Bosco’s formation and personality, and was an early supporter of her son’s ideals.
As a child Johnny watched over his family’s sheep. In his free time he practiced magic tricks and juggling and amazed his friends with his ability in acrobatics and walking the tight rope. He used to charge “admission” to these events – the crowd had to recite some prayers together, or listen to some part of the day’s homily, which John had memorized.
Don Bosco himself recounts a dream he had which was an indication of his future work. “When I was about nine years old I had a dream that left a profound impression on me for the rest of my life. I dreamed that I was near my home, in a very large playing field where a crowd of children were having fun. Some were laughing, others were playing and quite a few were cursing. I was so shocked at their language that I jumped into their midst, swinging wildly and shouting at them to stop.”
“At that moment a Man appeared, nobly attired, with a strong and imposing bearing. He was clad with a white flowing mantle and his face radiated such light that I could not look directly at him. He called me by name and told me to place myself as leader over those boys, adding the words, “You will have to win these friends of your not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue is beautiful.”
“Confused and afraid, I replied that I was only a boy and unable to talk to these youngsters about religion. At that moment the fighting, shouting and cursing stopped and the crowd of boys gathered about the Man who was now talking. Almost unconsciously I asked, “But how can you order me to do something that looks so impossible?”
“What seems to be impossible you must achieve by being obedient and by acquiring knowledge.”
“But where? How?”
“I will give you a Teacher under whose guidance you will learn and without whose help all knowledge becomes foolishness.”
“But who are you?”
“I am the Son of the woman your mother has taught you to greet three times a day.”
“My mother told me not to talk to people I don’t know, unless she gives me permission. So, please tell me your name.”
“Ask your mother.”
“At that moment I saw beside him a Lady of majestic appearance, wearing a beautiful mantle glowing as if bedecked with stars. She saw my confusion mount; so she beckoned me to her. Taking my hand with great kindness she said, “Look!” I did so. All the children had vanished. In their place I saw many animals: goats, dogs, cats, bears and a variety of others.
“This is your field, this is where you must work.” the Lady told me.
“Make yourself humble, steadfast and strong. And what you will see happen to these animals you will have to do for my children.”
“I looked again; the wild animals had turned into as many lambs, gentle, gamboling lambs, bleating a welcome for that Man and Lady.
“At this point of my dream I started to cry and begged the Lady to explain what it had meant because I was so utterly confused. She then placed her hand on my head and said, “In due time everything will be clear to you.”
“After she had spoken these words, some noise awoke me; everything had vanished. I was completely bewildered. Somehow my hands still seemed to ache and my cheeks still stung because of all the fighting. Moreover, my conversation with that Man and Lady so disturbed my mind that I was unable to sleep any longer that night.
“In the morning, I could barely wait to tell about my dream. When my brothers heard it, they burst out laughing. I then told my mother and grandmother. Each one who heard it gave a different interpretation. My brother Joseph said, “You’re going to become a shepherd and take care of goats, sheep and livestock.”
My mother’s comment was, “Who knows? Maybe you will become a priest.”
Dryly, Anthony muttered, “You might become the leader of a gang of robbers.”
But my very religious, illiterate grandmother had the last word, “You mustn’t pay any attention to dreams.”
Little John Bosco understood his calling though, as did his mother. They knew that he would have to go to school to be able to become a priest. Father Calosso, his parish priest, recognized his exceptional intelligence and began tutoring him in Latin.
Anthony, his other brother, found it difficult to watch John go to school every day while he, the eldest, went to labor in the fields all day long. His feelings turned into a deep resentment and eventually it became impossible for them to be able to live together peacefully. John went to stay at Fr. Calosso’s house and was tutored there.
In 1830 Johnny’s beloved friend and teacher, Fr Calosso, died. As a result, John had to return home. Margaret, in order to keep the peace, divided up the farm and gave Anthony his own share. For his part, John would walk three miles each way to school, and labored in different trades. However, Margaret knew John had to leave if he was to have any chance of continuing his education, so with some food, clothing, and his precious school books bundled under his arm, Mamma Margaret sent John off to the Moglia farm where he obtained steady work.
In the meantime, God was preparing little John Bosco to be a future teacher of the young. Even though he held many jobs, in a blacksmith shop, a cobbler shop, a tailor shop and a restaurant – jobs which would seem pointless in the life of a priest – he was learning valuable skills so that he could share his knowledge with others.
This was a time when child labor was common and abusive. John lived under a flight of stairs at one point, studying his school books by candlelight, after an exhausting day’s work. His shoes were worn out and his meals were poor, but he made many friends and was highly successful in his studies.
At the age of twenty, with the support of his spiritual director and friend, St Joseph Cafasso, John Bosco entered the seminary. He was noted for his piety, cheerfulness, and generous heart. He studied at the seminary for six years, and on June 5, 1841, John Bosco finally became a priest and was called by the Italian title, “Don”.
Don Bosco celebrated his first Mass in the church of St Francis of Assisi in Turin, a place he would return to often to say Mass. It was there that on December 8, 1841 he met a young and spindly Bartholomew Garelli, a local homeless boy.
Garelli had wandered into the sacristy seeking anything but religion. It was freezing out and he needed some warmth. The sacristan chased him out, but Don Bosco reprimanded the man and had him bring the terrified boy back to him. Don Bosco’s kindness won the teenager over and soon he brought more friends to Don Bosco.
Don Bosco ended up offering Garelli and his friends food, games, and catechism lessons. They were attracted by his obvious love for them, paired with his talent for magic tricks and juggling. Don Bosco had to rent field after field because the boys became too numerous or were kicked out for being too noisy; it became a “Wandering Oratory” as Don Bosco called it.
Soon others like Don Borel were attracted to Don Bosco’s work with the young men, helping those who could be found begging, gambling, and loitering on every street corner of Turin. The government saw the boys as a nuisance at best and a threat to the order of the city at worst, and did nothing to help them. Young men who were lucky enough to find work labored long hours, in terrible conditions, and for little pay. Sickness and disease were rampant. Their clothing was insufficient, their shoes most likely stolen and falling apart. Not only were most of them homeless, most of them were orphans coming as from as far as France and Sweden looking for work; they had little hope, no money, and no family.
In being with poor boys, Don Bosco saw the realization of his dream as a nine year old boy. If only he could win their trust he could instill in them a sense of faith in God. He needed to feed them – physically and spiritually. They were starving and he needed funds to take care of them. Don Bosco began to beg, knock on doors, preach, and plead with the people of Turin to help him take care of these boys. Workshops were opened and Don Bosco was able to pass on the trades which he had learned, to his boys.
Seeing the good work, others wanted to help Don Bosco and Don Borel. Don Cafasso continued to encourage and guide Don Bosco in his work. God always provided what Don Bosco needed to help the boys, even if it sometimes required a miracle (like multiplying food or money). Don Bosco’s faith was extraordinary, but he always contended that he needed more trust in God.
Don Bosco’s work with the young grew. There were so many young men around that some people thought Don Bosco was a revolutionary who was training an army to overthrow the government! Despite many trials, frustrations, and even assassination attempts, Don Bosco was able to obtain a tract of land and a little shed to build a chapel. The Oratory grew into a boarding and day school, and eventually became the site of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin.
The name “Salesian” was first used by Don Bosco in a conference with his helpers in 1854. Don Bosco saw great growth in the work of his Salesians. Years later, God’s providence guided him to the small town of Mornese. There, he met St. Mary Mazzarello, who was already engaged in caring for poor young girls. She was an answer to his prayers, and an obvious choice as the woman to begin the female branch of his order, since she was already engaged in the same work for the salvation of the young. Alongside St. Mary Mazzarello, he founded the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in Mornese, Italy.
The Salesian Congregation received formal approval by the Holy See on April 3, 1874. In fact, the Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, was so enthusiastic, he exclaimed, “I love you, I love you, I love you! I am all for the Salesians! I am among the first of their cooperators! Whoever is your enemy is God’s enemy! I should be afraid to go against you. With such little means at your disposal, you have accomplished things that are truly colossal! Not even you, yourself know the extent of your mission, or the good your Society will do for the Church…the pope, the Church, the whole world thinks about you, admires you. It is not you, but God who works through your congregation. Your marvelous growth and the good you do have no foundation in human causes. It is God, Himself, who guides, sustains, and carries forward your congregation. Tell that to the people, write it down, preach it from the pulpits!”
The remainder of Don Bosco’s life consisted of opening a house in Nice, France, sending missionaries to South America, and traveling to raise money for the building of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Rome. The Salesian Family expanded quickly and in 1876 the association of his first helpers, the Salesians Cooperators, was finally approved.
In January 1888 Don Bosco took to bed with a fever. The doctors said that his body was completely exhausted. His spiritual children gathered around him, and his last words were ones that assured his Salesians that Mary Help of Christians was with them in their work. He admonished them to always love one another and to live in the Salesian Family Spirit.
Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888 and left behind 773 Salesian priests and brothers and 393 Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. He was canonized on April 1, 1934 by Pope Pius XI.