SAINT JOHN BOSCO
Co-Founder, Priest (April 1, 1934)
“GIVE ME SOULS, TAKE AWAY THE REST.”
St. John Bosco’s family was like many families today. His father died when he as only two years ago, and his mother, Venerable Margaret Occhiena, brought up her children, John and Joseph, and her stepson, Anthony, by herself. John Bosco always spoke with great admiration of how hardworking and generous his mother was. Even if they had very little to share, she would never send someone in need away from her door empty-handed. From his mother, John learned to rely upon God, to love the Blessed Sacrament, and be devoted to Our Lady – all traits he would pass on to his future Salesians.
Finally, on June 5, 1841, John Bosco became Fr. John Bosco, or “Don Bosco”, as we often hear him called. He continued his studies after ordination at the Convitto, a special pastoral school for priests run with the help of St. Joseph Cafasso, his spiritual director. There he learned how to be a good confessor and spiritual director, while running a weekly “oratory” or get-together with the young people. He would play games with them, teach them the Catechism, and bring them to church. Many of his fellow priests at the Convitto were bothered by all the noise the boys would make and how they would show up at all hours looking for Don Bosco. The number of boys kept growing, and with that their noise level, so eventually he was asked to find another place to gather.
For many years, Don Bosco moved from place to place with his boys, staying until their welcome was worn out by the boys’ noise or trampling of the landscaping. Eventually he was offered a place in the Valdocco section of Turin, which at the time was more on the outskirts and in the shadow of La Giardiniera, a notorious house of ill-repute. Upon seeing the property, however, with its large yard and shed he could renovate into a chapel, Don Bosco knew the Lord was providing an unlikely home for his boys.
Realizing that he could not carry on his work by himself, Don Bosco gathered around himself other priests and lay people who would form what are today called the “Salesian Cooperators”. The Salesian Cooperators share in Don Bosco’s mission to young people, while remaining in their families and holding regular jobs. First among the Cooperators was Don Bosco’s mother, Margaret, who joined Don Bosco in Turin to care for the boys, even using her wedding dress to create altar linens for the chapel.
Don Bosco also felt called to found a religious congregation to help care for the young and he ended up forming two branches – the Society of St. Francis de Sales (Salesians of Don Bosco) for men who felt called to become priests or religious brothers, and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters), for women who felt called to religious life.
The Salesian Sisters began in Mornese, under the guidance of St. Mary Mazzarello, who never saw herself as anything but a simple woman, who just wanted to serve God. When elected to be the Superior by the other Sisters, she placed the keys of the house at the feet of the statue of Our Lady and pointed to her saying, “She is the true superior. I am just the vicar.”
The Salesian Family quickly became one of the fastest growing apostolic groups in Italy and eventually the world. Don Bosco soon sent missionaries to Argentina and Uruguay, even to the tip of South America’s Tierra del Fuego. The Salesians were unafraid of going to the poorest and most remote places because they felt the strength of God’s love for the young and shared Don Bosco’s desire to help save them from harm and educate them as leaders in their communities and the Faith.
Realizing that devotion to Our Lady and the Eucharist are the keys to holiness, Don Bosco founded ADMA (Association of the Devotees of Mary Help of Christians), to spread these devotions. ADMA formed the fourth and final group of the Salesian Family that Don Bosco personally founded during his lifetime.
After giving all of his strength and working relentlessly to help young people, Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888, at age 72. With his last words, he admonished his Salesians to always remember that Our Lady is present in the Salesian communities, walking the halls, interceding and guiding the work of the Salesians. Don Bosco was canonized by Pope Pius XI on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1934.
At nine years old John had a dream that marked the path his life would take, a dream he said he only fully understood in retrospect.