In the early XIX century, political unrest was rife all over Europe and more so in Italy where people were incensed by the revolutionary ideas being disseminated. John Bosco, whose name in Italian was Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco was born on August 16, 1815 in Becchi, the youngest son of Francis Bosco and Margaret Occhiena. They lived in a little hamlet in the province of Piedmont and the entire family consisted generally of farm labourers who supported themselves with the poor yield from their lands.
John’s father, Francis, a poor farmer, succumbed suddenly to a severe bout of pneumonia in 1817. This meant that his mother Margaret had to take over the running of the farm. Little John thus began working already at the age of four. He would remain in Becchi till he was eleven. Margaret was tender yet firm and under her gaze John learned to live the Christian life in action. Despite their poverty, the Bosco home was always open to the poor and the needy.
At the age of nine, John said he had a dream. He saw himself in the midst of a group of ruffians who were playing and swearing. He tried to stop them by fisting them but he was stopped by a majestic personage. This person pointed to his mother – the Blessed Virgin – who told him that he was not to use blows to stop them. From then on, in fulfillment of that dream, his work in life was to turn those wild creatures into meek lambs with single minded purpose.
Margaret, John’s mother inherited a son, Anthony, from the first marriage of her husband. There were constant quarrels in the poor Becchi house and so she had to make the difficult decision to send John off as a farmhand to a nearby farmstead. The young lad would grow up, strong and independent but he would also nurture a fervent desire to become a priest. Times were difficult and money was scarce. Who would pay for his studies?
Little John grew into a strapping young teenager who arrived in Chieri, Turin in November 1831 for his years of middle school. Thanks to the influence of his mother, he found lodging but he had to pay for it. Though his tuition was free John earned his keep to help him cover expenses for books and clothes. It was at Chieri that he learned to tend tables, to tailor, to smithy and to use his skills at carpentry -all of which would stand him in good stead.
On completing his studies and after spending considerable time in discernment, John felt called to join the seminary at Chieri where he met Louis Comollo. The two struck up an extraordinarily fond relationship. Louis was struck by the physical strength and mental acumen of John while John was drawn to Louis’ fervour and sense of restraint. However John was deeply grieved at the sudden death of Louis on April 2, 1839.
John had to surmount several difficulties and doubts about his vocation but he found a good friend and spiritual director in Fr. Joseph Cafasso who was regarded highly as a spiritual director. It was he who said: “Go to the seminary, Providence will take care of you.” Quite a few well-wishers from Chieri rallied to assist John while Fr. Guala (another friend) paid his seminary fees for the first year; Fr. Cafasso looked after the rest.
Throughout his four years in the seminary, John was a model student. He was ordained deacon on March 27, 1841 and a priest on June 5 that same year, by Bishop Louis Fransoni. He celebrated his first Mass the following day on the feast of Corpus Christi. He was assisted by his friend and spiritual director Fr. Joseph Cafasso. He would celebrate another Mass in his own village of Castelnuovo where a large number of village folk attended. He had reached his goal after many struggles and problems and now his life’s work was about to begin.
It was the feast of the Immaculate Conception and Don Bosco was preparing to celebrate mass in the church of St. Francis of Assisi where he had encountered a young country lad from Asti by the name of Bartholomew Garelli. After Mass, Don Bosco and Bartholomew prayed a “Hail Mary” and so began their first Catechism class. The youngster would subsequently return with his friends and that was the beginning of the ‘Oratory.’
After wandering around the playgrounds and alleyways of Turin for a place for the young, his prayers were finally answered when Mr. Soave came to him and said: “I believe you’re looking for a place…”
Francesco Pinardi who owned a place leased to Mr. Soave, included a rundown shack. Mr. Pinardi was contacted and although the deed was signed on April 5 in 1846, Don Bosco was able to purchase it only on February 19, 1851.
The boys of the Oratory knew Don Bosco as their father but now, Mamma Margaret, Don Bosco’s own mother would enter Valdocco and remain there with him, to mother his boys for the next ten years till she died on November 25, 1856.
His First Followers
The youngsters that Don Bosco gathered and guided at his school had been kept together by an ingenious system of Education called the Preventive System. His was a very practical system founded on three pillars: Reason, Religion and Loving-Kindness. This system would demand a profound love for young people inspired by a deep love for God.
Don Bosco first met Dominic Savio in 1854. The boy was twelve years old and Don Bosco was then thirty-nine. The young priest already saw in that lad the wondrous workings of grace. The boy came to the Oratory for just three years where he lived with Don Bosco and absorbed his spirit. He died on March 9, 1857. Don Bosco wrote a short biography of Savio and proposed him as a model for all youngsters.
The society was gradually expanding and Don Bosco opened the first Salesian house outside the city of Turin at Mirabello Monferrato and placed Michael Rua there, as its first rector.
Having been inspired by a dream, Don Bosco felt compelled to build the great Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians in Turin which would be the mother church of the congregation. The construction began in 1863 and Don Bosco said: “Every brick is a grace of our Blessed Mother.”
After several tiring journeys to Rome and meeting several bishops and the Pope, the Holy See finally approved the Salesians as a Pious Society on March 1, 18.
Being instructed in a dream again, Don Bosco was asked by the Blessed Virgin Mary to “do for girls what he had done for boys.” That became the inspiration for the birth of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. Mary Domenica Mazzarello was its first superior. She was a capable teacher of the spiritual life and a prudent guide of the girls. She would go to her eternal reward on May 14, 1881.