SAINT JOHN BOSCO: FOUNDER OF THE SALESIAN ORDER
1815 – 1888
Today countless boys and girls all over the world owe their better way of life to one man – John Bosco – more fondly and better known as Don Bosco. (“Don” was a title often given to priests)
His life story is not only amazing but a great source of inspiration to all who came in contact with this great lover of children.
Born on a poor farm near Turin, Piedmont, Italy of an extremely poor peasant family aggravated by the early demise of his father when he was but a mere two years old, John nevertheless, by his hard work and determination to better himself, managed to get an education.
This was no easy job as he had to walk four miles each day to school for half a year and then for the rest of the year he still had to work to support himself and his mother at whatever jobs he could get – from working in the fields as a farmer, as a shoe-shine boy to an errand boy and much later as a waiter, tailor, shoemaker and carpenter. In this way he was able to work himself through high school, college, seminary and finally became a priest at age 26.
John was only nine years old when he had a mysterious dream that was to determine the whole course of his life. In this dream he was surrounded by a bunch of rowdy children who were all fighting, shouting and screaming at the same time. They were like an army of youngsters who turned into ferocious animals.
In an effort to calm them he tried talking to them quietly and reasonably but that didn’t work. So he switched to a berating and threatening tone, but that didn’t work either.
Then a woman (some say it was the Virgin Mary herself) appeared out of nowhere and said, “Softly, softly. . . If you wish to win them, take your shepherd’s staff and lead them into pasture.” It was then that John realized that that was his calling – to help the struggling children of the poor like himself to become gentle lambs and to make a better life for themselves.
So from early childhood urged by our Lady this became his goal that motivated him for over sixty years! To gather the young boys around him he would diligently practice circus skills, then entice them with his feats of juggling and other acrobatic feats and magic tricks always ending with a sermon he had heard in church. Thus enthralled he would encourage them to earn their keep through honest means. He would even teach them the faith and encourage them to go to Mass with him.
In this way was he able to influence the poor boys that lived in his same neighborhood near Turin, Italy.
It is thanks, too, to his charismatic personality, a great sense of humor and spirit of joyfulness that John endeared himself to all who met him.
Enters the Seminary
It was while he was staying with an aunt who was servant to a priest that John learned to read and had an ardent desire to be a priest. But he had to overcome a lot of difficulties before he could become one. At sixteen he was finally able to enter the seminary of Chieri even if he had to wear clothes which he either borrowed or were donated to him and his tuition was paid through charitable donations.
But even while he was studying theology at Turin he kept on with his Sunday activities of finding street kids to entertain and at the same time to influence them in whatever way he could. Amazing John! He would even draw cartoons to attract them to his catechism class. He would take them on outings to experience the joys of nature.
He became so loved that when he was ordained a priest the whole village came out to assist him in his first Mass!
After his ordination in 1841 Don Bosco assisted and encouraged by St. Joseph Cafasso, the rector of a parish church, worked even more energetically to rescue the thousands of neglected and exploited boys from the slums of Turin where he was assigned.
In 1844 John was assigned chaplain of St. Philomena’s Hospice for girls. Here he housed his boys in an old building on the grounds. However when they became too unruly he was ordered to remove his boys or resign. Resign he did.
Established “The Oratory”
Renting an old barn in a field he called “The Oratory of St. Francis de Sales,” a saint he admired so much, he sent for his mother to help him.
Starting with his own devoted mother Margaret as housekeeper, Bosco opened the first of a kind of home – a refuge for homeless boys. While during the day Don Bosco found apprentice work for his boys to do, at night he would teach them the basic skills of shoemaking, tailoring and Latin. He would often begin with a simple catechism lesson, the rosary or an explanation of the day’s Gospel. By 1845 he had already 800 noisy youngsters.
When this proved to be a feasible, practical and workable plan of helping the struggling children of the poor to find their way into a better life, Don Bosco through the support of “cooperators” rapidly established many of these oratories or youth centers throughout the city many of which later became permanent residences that provided the street kids with both academic and vocational training.
Here the youth in addition to getting education, religious instruction and recreation could learn a trade and at the same time get the basics of Christian life to make them honest and good Christians. In the workshops Don Bosco opened they learned shoemaking, tailoring and printing. In addition, today they learn automotive, electrical and refrigeration skills so that they may be able to support themselves later in life. (This practice is being successfully adapted here in the Philippines today for our so-called street children.) Many of our own scholars of the Santuario de San Antonio are enrolled here.
All this Don Bosco achieved thanks to his hard work, persistence in begging, his genial sunny disposition and charismatic personality that ensured his success when asking for help. He also paid for it by writing popular books, preaching and from charitable donations.
By the mid 1850’s Don Bosco had ten priests assigned to assist him. He found himself the head of a large establishment that included a grammar and technical school and a fine church as well.
Founded the Salesian Order
To help him care for homeless boys not only in Turin but in other parts of Italy Don Bosco founded the Salesian Order or the Society of St. Francis of Sales whom he named after the bishop of Geneva for whom he had great admiration.
It was in 1859 when his society finally received general approval from Pope Pius IX. (Five years later his order was formally approved). He placed the order under the protection of Mary, Help of Christians and St. Francis de Sales his favorite saint. This order helped him to establish night schools, full time technical schools, apprentice workshops and dormitories. It not only continued and expanded his apostolate but also helped to establish foreign missions in Patagonia and all over South America. They taught the boys through a remarkable unheard-of education system where bodily chastisement was completely eliminated and preventive measures of love, patience, religion and firmness were used instead. He followed his axiom of avoiding punishment. “Try to gain love before inspiring fear.”
So that the poor and neglected girls may also be helped Don Bosco in 1872 with St. Mary Mazzarello founded a congregation of nuns the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians, doing similar work among girls.
To assist, supplement and fund the work of both congregations Don Bosco then organized the third order called Salesian Cooperators who followed Salesian spirituality in their homes.
Little mention is made of John’s job as a church builder although starting from his first little church he proceeded to the construction of another larger one completed in 1868.
Shortly after his church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Rome was completed Don Bosco died at Turin on January 31, 1888. He had been able to offer only one mass there.
Over 40,000 people visited his body as it lay in state and the people of Turin lined the streets to watch the cortege.
In 1883 he had another mysterious dream showing his brothers travelling all over the world. His dream came true when he died as his work had spread to England, France, Spain, and a number of South American countries with several houses in Italy. Today there are thousands of Salesians in 2,069 communities in 123 countries all around the world who continue to fulfill Don Bosco’s dream.
Besides being an outstanding educator of the Roman Catholic Church pioneering in the education for the poor – Don Bosco had also fostered 2,500 priestly vocations. He was also a remarkable writer usually spending half of the night writing books and magazines. He even wrote a biography of St. Dominic Savio, who was one of his own pupils. He was furthermore a great preacher especially in the way he effectively presented the truth and mysteries of the faith.
It is no wonder that Don Bosco was canonized in 1934 by one of his greatest admirers Pope Pius XI with his feast day being on January 31, the day he died. Fittingly he is honored as the patron saint of the schools of arts and trade, as well as of cartoonists and cinema workers. But for many millions whose lives he had touched and made better and even for the many millions of street children that have been helped through his dream he will always remain the Amazing Patron Saint of Street Children.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints
Pocket Dictionary of Saints