John Bosco was born on the 16th of August 1815, in Becchi, a hamlet belonging to the municipality of Castelnuovo d’Asti (today Castelnuovo Don Bosco). He came from a family of farmers living in poverty. He lost his father, Francesco, at the age of two.

His mother Margherita (Mamma Margherita) raised him with love, tenderness and energy. She taught him to cultivate the land and to see God behind everything: the beauty of the heavens, the abundance of the harvest, and the rain which showered the vines. Mamma Margherita learned to pray in the church, and transferred this to her children. Margherita played a decisive role in the human and Christian formation of Don Bosco, as also in the creation of the educative ‘family’ environment of Valdocco“Everyone knows,” – said John Paul II to a meeting of school-teachers at Turin in 1988,

Image result for Don Bosco successor

Don Bosco and Mamma Margherita at Valdocco

“what importance Mamma Margaret had in the life of Saint John Bosco. Not only did she give the Oratory at Valdocco that characteristic ‘family spirit’ that still exists today, but she was able to mould the heart of her young son John into that goodness and kindness which was to make him the friend and father of his poor boys”.

Don Bosco’s mother is also considered to be the first Salesian Co-operator.

For John, to pray meant to speak with God on his knees on the kitchen floor, to think of Him while seated on the grass, gazing at the heavens. John also learnt from his mother to see God in the faces of others, those of the poor and the miserable who came knocking at their door during winter, and to whom Margherita gave hot soup, mended shoes, and expressed love in many other ways.

The great dream

At the age of nine, John had the first great dream, which marked his entire life. He saw a horde of very poor boys, playing and blaspheming. John wanted to react aggressively, but a Man of majestic appearance told him:

“With meekness and charity you will conquer these friends of yours”; and a Lady just as majestic added:

“Make yourself humble, strong and robust. At the right time, you will understand everything.” 



The following years were given direction by that dream. In it, both son and mother saw a sign showing them how their way of life should be. John immediately tried to do good deeds for boys in the area. When the trumpet of visiting performers announced a local feast in the nearby hills, John enthusiastically attended, and sat in the front row to watch them closely. He studied the tricks and secrets of jugglers, acrobats, and other performers. One Sunday evening, John gave his first performance in front of kids from the neighbourhood. He performed miracles and prodigies, balancing pots and pans on the tip of his nose. Then, he jumped up on a rope strung between two trees and walked on it, applauded by the young spectators. Before the grandiose conclusion, he repeated the sermon he had heard at the morning Mass for his audience, and invited all to pray.

The games and the Word of God began transforming his little friends, who willingly joined him in prayer. Little John understood that he needed to study and become a priest, in order to help and do good for so many boys. But his brother Anthony, an illiterate peasant and already eighteen years of age, did not want to hear of this. He threw away his books and was physically abusive. On a cold morning of February 1827, John left his home to look for work as a farm-servant. He was only twelve but life at home was unbearable due to the continuous quarrels with Anthony. For three years, he worked on the Moglia farm, near Moncucco. He led the cattle to pasture, milked the cows, put fresh hay in the manger, and ploughed the fields with the oxen. During the long winter nights and during summer, he went back to his books and studies, sitting under the trees while the cows stripped leaves.

Anthony married three years later. John returned home and resumed his schooling, first at Castelnuovo and then at Chieri. To provide for his needs he learnt, and worked in, different trades: tailor, blacksmith, barman, and he even coached students after classes. He was an intelligent and brilliant boy, and the best students of the school flocked around him. He founded what was known as the Happy Club. At twenty years of age, John Bosco took the most important decision of his life: he entered the Seminary. There he followed six years of intense studies after which he was ordained priest.


He becomes Don Bosco

On June 5, 1841, John Bosco was ordained priest by the archbishop of Turin. Finally, Don Bosco (in Italy the family name of the priest is preceded by Don) was able to dedicate all his time to the abandoned boys he had seen in his dreams. He looked for them throughout the streets of Turin. Michael Rua, one of the first young boys he met in those first months, said that during the first Sundays, Don Bosco went through the city to learn more about the moral state of the young. He was shocked. The outskirts of the city were zones of turmoil and revolution, places of desolation. Unemployed, sad and ready to do anything, adolescents caused problems on the streets. Don Bosco saw them betting on street corners, their faces hard and determined, as if to get their way at any cost.

Near the city’s public market (Turin had a population of 117,000 inhabitants at that time) he discovered a real and tangible market of young workers. The area near Porta Palazzo, he wrote years later, swarmed with peddlers, shoe polishers, stable-boys, vendors of any kind, errand boys etc.: all poor people who day in day out barely eked out a living. These boys who roamed the streets of Turin were the wicked effect of an event that was throwing the world into confusion: the industrial revolution. This started in England but it soon crossed the English Channel and made its way to the South. This revolution brought with it a sense of well-being, unheard of in previous centuries, but it also had a very high cost on humanity. Certain type of labour became a necessity and a great number of families, coming in from the countryside in search of a better life and living below the poverty line, gathered in the slums of cities.

Boys in prison

Don Bosco met the most dramatic situation when he visited the prisons. He wrote:

“To see so many boys, from 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy, strong, intelligent, insect-bitten, lacking spiritual and material food, was something that horrified me.”

When faced with such a situation he made his decision:


Boy, Hungry, Sad
“….I was in prison and you came to visit me” Matthew 25: 36

“I must by any available means prevent boys ending up here.” 

At the time, there were sixteen parishes in Turin. The parish priests were aware of the problem of the young, but at the same time they were expecting them to go to the sacristies and to the Churches for the required catechism classes. They did not realize that population growth and migration to the city made this way of doing things inefficient and ineffective. It was necessary to try new ways, to invent new methods, to try another form of apostolate: to meet the boys in shops, offices, market places. Many young priests tried this. Don Bosco met the first boy on December 8, 1841. He took care of him. Three days later he had nine boys under his care, three months later twenty-five, and by summer eighty. In his Memoirs he recalled,

“….they were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from far-away places”.

The youth centre (which he called Oratory – “Oratorio” in Italian) was born. This was not simply a charitable institution, and its activities were not limited to Sundays. For Don Bosco the oratorio became his permanent occupation, where he also looked for jobs for the unemployed. He also tried to obtain better working conditions and fairer treatment for those who already had jobs, and he taught and mentored those willing to study after their day’s work. But some of his boys did not have shelter. They slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. He tried offering lodging in his house twice. The first time they stole the blankets; the second they even emptied the hay-loft.

Yet, being the obstinate optimist he was, he did not give up. In the month of May, 1847, he gave shelter to a young lad from Valesia, in one of the three rooms he was renting out in the slums of Valdocco, where he was living with his mother.

“I had three lira (pounds) when I arrived in Turin…” said the boy while sitting by the fire, “…but I found no work and no place to sleep.”

Money problems

After the youngster from Valesia, another six boys arrived that same year. In the first months, the lack of money became a serious problem for Don Bosco. Indeed, this problem persisted throughout his life. His first benefactor was not an aristocrat but his mother. Margaret (Mamma Margherita), a fifty-nine-year-old poor peasant, had left her house at Becchi to become mother to these poor boys. To feed them, she sold her wedding ring, earrings and necklace, things which she had kept jealously until then. The boys sheltered by Don Bosco numbered thirty-six in 1852, hundred and fifteen in 1854, four-hundred and seventy in 1860, six-hundred in 1861, and sometime later eight-hundred, the maximum ever reached.

Some of these boys decided to follow Don Bosco’s steps, that is, to commit their lives to service, helping and supporting abandoned boys. This was the origin of the Salesian Congregation. Among the first members we find Michael Rua, John Cagliero (who later became a Cardinal), and John Baptist Francesia. The archives of the Salesian Congregation contain some extraordinary documents, such as a contract of apprenticeship on ordinary paper, dated November 1851; another one on stamped paper costing forty cents, dated February 8, 1852; and others with later dates are also found. These are among the first contracts of apprenticeship found in Turin. All are signed by the employer, the apprentice and Don Bosco. In these contracts, Don Bosco covered many sensitive issues. Under certain employers, apprentices were practically servants and scullery-boys, but Don Bosco obliged them to assign to them duties which were exclusively linked to their acknowledged trade. Employers used to beat the boys, but Don Bosco required employers to correct the boys only by means of words. He cared for their health, he demanded that they be given rest on feast days and annual holidays. But despite all the efforts and contracts, the situation of the apprentices of the time remained very problematic.

Bashing leather and pushing an awl

In autumn 1853 Don Bosco came to a decision. He opened shoe-making and tailoring shops in the Oratory at Valdocco. The shoe-making shop was located in a very narrow place near the bell-tower of the first church he had just finished building. There Don Bosco sat at a cobbler’s bench, and in front of four little boys he pounded away at a leather sole. Then he taught them how to manage an awl and pack-thread. After these shops for shoemakers and tailors, it was the time for shops aimed at training book-binders, carpenters, printers and mechanics. In six of these shops the privileged place was reserved for orphans, the poor and boys who were totally abandoned – those who had nobody. To administer and maintain these shops Don Bosco devised a new type of religious: The Coadjutors or Salesian Brothers. In no time, similar shops were opened in other Salesian centres outside Turin. The Salesian Brothers have the same dignity and rights as those of the Salesian Priests and clerics, but they are specialized to work in professional schools. At the time of Don Bosco’s death, there were fourteen professional schools: in Italy, France, Spain and Argentina. Later these amounted to two-hundred, spread across the world.

Password: At once

Work at the oratories

In a dialogue between Don Bosco and the first boy (the boy himself wrote this dialogue) there is the expression “at once”. It looks like an ordinary expression but in reality, it is Don Bosco’s password. In fact, Don Bosco is drawn into action by the urgent needs of the young and the impossibility of waiting any longer. Because of the incertitude the industrial revolution brought, and the impossibility of finding good and ready made plans and programmes of action, Don Bosco and the first Salesians used all their energies to do something at once for young people who were in trouble and in such an alarming state. The urgent needs of the youngsters directed their programmes of action. Young people needed a school and a job that would guarantee a more secure future for them; they needed to feel what they actually were, boys. That is, they needed to let loose their desire to run and jump in open green spaces, and not feel miserable beside city sidewalks; they needed to meet God, to discover and live according to their dignity. Therefore, food, catechism, professional training and work, protected by a good contract, were the things that Don Bosco and his Salesians tried to offer right away to these youngsters. It has rightly been said, that if a man dying of hunger is given a fish he will be fed for a day, but if he is taught how to fish he will be fed for a lifetime. But on the other hand, a man dying of hunger needs the fish to survive, so that he may have the time to learn how to fish. Immediate intervention was necessary, because it is not enough to prepare for a different future, because meanwhile the poor may die a miserable death.

 I have done nothing

In the following years, Don Bosco, accomplished many imposing works, striving relentlessly and working to the brink of exhaustion. Image result for La Vergine Maria con Don BoscoBesides the Salesians, he founded the Daughters of Mary help of Christians and the Salesian Co-operators. He built the Basilica and Sanctuary of Mary Help of Christians, and founded fifty-nine Salesian houses in six nations. He started the Salesian Missions in Latin America, sending Salesian priests, brothers and sisters. He published a series of popular books for Christians in general, and for boys.

He invented and developed a System of Education founded on three values: Reason, Religion and Loving kindness – the Preventive System. It did not take long before people saw in it a model by which the young should be educated. Nevertheless, whenever somebody praised Don Bosco for his work, he would immediately interrupt the person by saying:

“I have done nothing by myself. It is the Virgin Mary who has done everything.” 

She had traced out his road in the renowned dream he had when he was nine years old. Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888, at dawn. To the Salesians who were keeping vigil around his bed he whispered these last words:

“Love each other as brothers. Do good to all and evil to none… Tell my boys that I wait for them all in Paradise.”

Don Bosco’s message

After more than one hundred years, Don Bosco’s message for youngsters certainly still applies. If Don Bosco is still amongst us today he would have definitely shared a similar thought:

“I was a person like you. I tried to give meaning to my life. With God’s help I decided against having my own family to become a father, a brother and a friend to those who do not have a father, brothers or friends. If you want to be like me we will walk together sharing our life with people living in South American shanty towns, with lepers in India or with so many poor people living in the slums of an Italian city: people deprived of affection, of meaning in life, poor people who need God and you to go on living. In any case, if you do not feel like living as I did, I still want to remind you of a very important truth: life, this great gift which comes from God, is to be spent well. You will spend it well if you do not hide egoistically in your shell but open yourself to love, committing yourself to the good of the one who is poorer than you.”