John Melchior Bosco was born on August 16, 1815 in a poor hamlet of Becchi in northern Italy. His father, Francis, died only two years after John’s birth, leaving Margaret to raise three boys by herself: John and his older brother Joseph, and their stepbrother Anthony from Francis’ first marriage. At the age of nine John had a dream which foreshadowed his lifetime mission with the young. John found himself fighting a large crowd of boys who were cursing and fighting. He tried to stop them, but they refused to listen to him. Suddenly, a Man appeared, who motioned to John and said, “Not with blows will you help these boys, but with gentleness and kindness!” Then a Woman appeared who pointed to the boys who were changed to a pack of wild animals. But when the woman put out her hand again the beasts were changed to lambs. Turning to John she told him: “This is the field of your work. Be humble, steadfast, and strong!”
To fulfil his desire to be a priest John had to study, but the Bosco’s were poor farmers. With much effort and helped by many people John managed to finish his studies and entered the diocesan seminary. On June 5, 1841, John was ordained to the priesthood in Turin. From now on he would be known as Don Bosco (‘Don’ is a title for priests in Italy). Upon the advice of St. Joseph Cafasso, his spiritual director, he went for two years pastoral course at the Convitto Ecclesiastico as a student priest. One of his duties was to accompany Fr. Cafasso upon his visits to the prisons of the city. The condition of young people confined in these places, abandoned to the most evil influences made such a indelible impression upon his mind that he resolved to do something to help them.
On December 8, 1841, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, while Don Bosco was preparing for Mass, the sacristan drove from the Church a street kid because he refused to serve Mass. Don Bosco heard his cries and recalled him. In the friendship which sprang up between them Don Bosco eagerly offered himself to give him catechism lessons. Some of his companions soon joined Bartolomeo Garelli. By February 1842, they numbered twenty boys, in March of the same year, thirty, and in March 1846, they numbered over four hundred.
It was in 1845 that Don Bosco began his night schools. With the closing of the factories the boys flocked to his rooms where he and Fr. Borel gave them some basic education. After moving in different locations Don Bosco rented in the Valdocco district of Turin a shed with an open field from a certain Mr. Pinardi. From this humble beginnings he developed the Oratory that counted seven hundred members. Soon night school was restarted and Don Bosco taught his boys some trade to earn a living, the beginning of Salesian technical training centres. Later “Mama Margaret”, as Don Bosco’s mother came to be known, gave the last ten years of her life in devoted service to the poor and abandoned boy in Oratory.
Don Bosco saw his mission as transforming poor and abandoned boys into ‘good Christians and honest citizens’. In fact, he never failed to see under the dirt, the rags, and the roughness the spark in the heart of the young which kindness and encouragement would fan into a flame. His educative method of education, which he called the Preventive System, knew nothing of punishment. Observance of rules was obtained by instilling a true sense of duty, by removing assiduously all occasions for disobedience, and by praising what is good and positive in the young no matter how trivial it may be. He held that every educator should be seen not only in the classroom as a teacher but especially in the playground where he becomes a father, brother, and friend.
On the evening of January 26, 1854, he gathered a small group of his best boys and agreed to call themselves Salesians in honour of St. Francis de Sales whose gentleness and kindness they wish to imitate. In 1869 he founded the Association Devoted to Mary Help of Christians. In 1872 he founded the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians to work for poor and abandoned girls. In 1875 he sent his first group of missionaries to Argentina, the beginning of his worldwide expansion. In 1876 the Association of Salesian Cooperators received juridical approval. Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888 at the age of 72. Today over 15,000 Salesian brothers and priests work in over 132 countries worldover.
He was beatified on June 2, 1929 and canonised on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1934 by Pope Pius XI. His remains are venerated in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, Turin and his feast is celebrated on January 31.
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