SAINT JOHN BOSCO
Born: August 16, 1815 Castelnuovo d’Asti (now Castelnuovo Don Bosco), Italy
Ordained: June 5, 1841 Turin
Died: January 31, 1888 Turin
Canonized: April 1, 1934
Feast day: January 31
Popularly known as Don Bosco, St. John Bosco is one of the most beloved of modern saints. From his childhood, he wanted to dedicate his life to keeping youngsters close to God. As a boy he used to repeat to his friends, stories he had read or sermons he had heard and would then lead his listeners in the recitation of the rosary. From travelling jugglers, acrobats, and magicians he learned tricks and put on his own shows; the price of admission being the common recitation of the rosary.
As a young priest, Don Bosco went to Turin. Hordes of boys were descending on the capital, looking for work in the factories and construction projects. Many of these youths were orphans, many were seasonal workers from the outlying farmlands, and those with families were usually poor and often had family problems. Don Bosco devised a plan to care for delinquents after their release in order to keep boys out of trouble. He called the institution that he envisioned an “oratory,” a place of prayer. It was much more than that; it was a place to play and make friends, a school, an employment service, and a home. Every Sunday and feast day Don Bosco gathered the poor and the abandoned youths of Turin, heard their confessions, celebrated Mass for them, preached in the language they could understand, led them in games and hikes, told them stories and listened to their problems. He found them places to stay and before long he opened a hospice that eventually housed hundreds. He found them jobs with reputable employers. He opened a night school, and later a trade school and what we would call a college prep programme.
All of this work Don Bosco put under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, who was known for his patience and gentleness, qualities essential to educators. Hence the institution was called the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.
Around 1850 Don Bosco began singling out youngsters who might become good priests. In exchange for helping him with catechism lessons and supervision, he offered them an education. Some of these youths decided to stay with him, and in 1859 with 22 of them he formed the Society of St. Francis de Sales—the Salesian Society. In the 1870's, with St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello he founded the Salesian Sisters to do the same sort of work that he was doing, with poor girls.
The first Salesian work outside Turin opened in 1863; by the time Don Bosco died, his Salesians- men and women- numbered 1,400 and were in 9 countries of Europe and South America. Today they labour for the poor and abandoned young people on all 6 continents, in about 130 countries, and number about 28,000. In addition there are tens of thousands of members of the wider Salesian family: co-operators, alumni, a secular institute, and several small religious congregations.
SAINT MARY MAZZARELLO
Born: May 9, 1837 Mornese, Italy
Religious profession: August 5, 1872
Died: May 14, 1881 Nizza Monferrato, Italy
Canonized: June 24, 1951
Feast day: May 13
The Mazzarellos lived in a small town in the hill country on the border of Piedmont, not far from Genoa. They were hardworking, pious farmers. The assistant pastor of the town, Fr. Pestarino, was the spiritual guide to a group of young women who had the simple apostolate of teaching catechism and sewing to the girls of Mornese. Mary joined these 'Daughters of Mary Immaculate'. At the same time she continued her strenuous work in the family’s vineyards and around the house.
When Mary was 23 she suffered a serious bout of typhus that left her permanently weakened. Spiritually, however, she only drew closer to God. In 1864 Don Bosco passed through Mornese, and he was impressed by Fr. Pestarino and the little circle of young women around him—particularly Mary Mazzarello. Over the next several years Mary and several of the other women began to feel that their future lay with the priest from Turin and not merely in their backcountry town. By 1867 he had provided them with a simple rule of life and was pondering whether he should establish a congregation of women to do for girls what he was doing for boys.
Mary, though simple and unschooled, was the natural leader of the group that had broken with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate and had become the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. When they finally were ready to commit themselves publicly to God in 1872, they elected Mary as their superior who seemed reluctant to assume such a position. Yet she was admirably equipped for it with her tranquility, wisdom, joy, humour and love for her sisters and the pupils.
The little group flourished under the leadership of Mary Mazzarello and Don Bosco. In two years they opened a second house, and by 1877 they were sending missionaries to South America with their Salesian brothers. The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, or Salesian Sisters, have grown into the largest congregation of women in the Catholic Church.
At 35, Mary began to learn to read and write. Her few surviving letters to Don Bosco and her sisters are noteworthy for their spiritual content and good sense. When the harsh climate and inaccessibility of Mornese necessitated the motherhouse’s relocation to Nizza Monferrato, she accepted the move with grace. On a journey to see some sisters off to the foreign missions, she contracted pleurisy. Nevertheless she continued with her travels in order to visit other sisters in France. Informed by Don Bosco that she would not recover, she returned to Nizza, where she suffered for several weeks before entering eternal life.
SAINT DOMINIC SAVIO
Born: April 2, 1842 Riva di Chieri (Turin), Italy
Died: March 9, 1857 Mondonio, Italy
Canonized: June 12, 1954
Feast day: May 6
Dominic’s father was a blacksmith, and the family had to move house several times as he pursued his craft. Dominic had the privilege of making his first Communion at the age of 7, when the usual age was about 12. On that occasion the boy made four startling resolutions: to go to confession and receive Communion often; to sanctify Sundays; to keep Jesus and Mary as his friends; and to die rather than sin. He was faithful to these promises.
In the fall of 1854 Dominic sought admission to the Oratory of Don Bosco in Turin. Already he wanted to be a priest. At the Oratory Dominic quickly became everyone’s friend and an energetic apostle. Though his health was poor, and despite his lack of seniority among the boys he was one of the most gifted intellectually. He explained to one new boy, “Here we make holiness consist in being cheerful.” Don Bosco had to restrain his impulse to do severe penances, reminding Dominic that his main penance must be obedience and the fulfilment of his duties, like study, house chores and recreation.
In 1856 Dominic was moved to establish among the best boys of the Oratory (all older than he) the Company of Mary Immaculate as a secret society of apostles among their peers. They looked after new pupils, kept an eye on boys likely to get into trouble and generally set an outstanding example of study, piety, and good behaviour. Ironically, all of the original members became founding members of the Salesian Society in 1859, except Dominic.
Dominic experienced mystical gifts. Don Bosco found him in ecstasy after holy Communion one day. On another occasion, he led the priest to someone who needed the last sacraments; how the boy knew this, could not be explained. Another time, without any communication from home, he told Don Bosco that his mother needed him. Don Bosco let him go, and he found his mother in difficult labour. He gave her a scapular, and she delivered perfectly. The women of the Savio family used that scapular for generations. St. Dominic is the unofficial patron of expectant mothers on account of this episode.
Dominic became quite ill during the winter of 1857. Finally, Don Bosco allowed him to go home to Mondonio (about 25 miles away), hoping he would recover with his parents’ attention. It seems that the doctor’s bloodletting only worsened the patient’s condition, however. In any case, a few days later Dominic died, a few weeks short of his 15th birthday. Both his fellow pupils and Don Bosco were so impressed by young Savio’s life, that the Saint wrote his biography and published it in 1859. It has been translated into many languages, including English, and is still in print. St. Dominic Savio is the patron saint of choirboys.
BLESSED LAURA VICUÑA
Born: April 5, 1891 Santiago, Chile
Died: January 22, 1904 Junín de los Andes, Argentina
Beatified: September 3, 1988
Liturgical memorial: January 22
When Laura’s father, an army officer, abandoned the family, her mother took her and her younger sister to Argentina, where in 1900 Laura became a pupil at a boarding school of the Salesian Sisters. Upon making her first Communion, like Dominic Savio, she made resolutions to love God wholeheartedly and to die rather than offend him. She became a model student.
Realizing that her mother had become the mistress of their landlord, Laura began to pray for her mother’s conversion and perform acts of penance, and—also desirous of becoming a nun—she made private vows, under her confessor’s guidance. Finally, she offered God her life as an ultimate sacrifice for her mother’s conversion. When she fell gravely ill, she revealed this to her mother and then had the joy of seeing her renounce her sinful way of life and be reconciled with God.
During the centennial year of Don Bosco’s death (1988), Pope John Paul II beatified Laura at the great youth gathering at Don Bosco’s birthplace near Castelnuovo Don Bosco.