A Life Sketch of Don Bosco (1815-1888)

John Bosco was born in the little hamlet of Becchi some 20 kms. from Turin. Italy. His father, Francis Bosco, was a hard-working peasant who died when John was only 2 years old. The grief stricken words of his mother, telling him that he was now fatherless remained deeply impressed in the child’s mind, and perhaps helped to instill in his mind an intense pity for the orphans and the homeless which became the dominant note of his life.

The story of the exertions and sacrifices made by him and his mother cannot be told here in detail. Working as a servant, teaching assisting a tailor, doing chores for a blacksmith and keeping score at a billiardtablewere some of the things he did in order to pay for his food, lodging and tuition while at school. The worst was over when in October 1835, with an outfit provided by charitable neighbours, John Bosco entered the Seminary at Chieri to become a Priest.

On 5 June 1841 John Bosco was ordained a priest. Disregarding attractive offers of priestly work, Don Bosco, as he was from now on called, went on to pursue a post-graduate course in theology, together with some practical training in priestly duties.

Very soon Don Bosco became a frequent visitor to the poorer quarters of the city. Owing to its rapid expansion labourers were crowding into Turin in great numbers. The young priest was distressed by the swarms of neglected children whom the encountered. In the miserable garrets and cellars which he visited, he found exemplified all the evils of overcrowding, all the terrible effects of herding the young and innocent with those already corrupt. In the prisons he met youth serving terms for every type of crime, while during his evening walks he constantly met bands of young people fighting, making themselves a danger to society. He decided that the work of his life would be to redeem these miserable youth.

Don Bosco’s work for boys started with one boy, a mason’s apprentice. This boy brought others and the number of “Don Bosco’s friends” soon multiplied. Don Bosco gave them facilities for games and taught them their religion.

In the meantime Don Bosco finished his post graduate course of priestly studies and was occupied full-time in the work of the oratory. Soon he started offering shelter to destitute children who had nowhere to go. Thus in 1846 in his Sunday Oratory (Youth Centre) there were over 600 boys while some 20 youngsters lodged with him. He needed someone to look after his boys and his mother “Mamma Margaret” - as the boys would affectionately call her - offered to come to Turin and help him.

With rooms, no matter how small, at his disposal, the young priests’ ideals began to expand. He organized daily evening classes for his boys. To the lessons in Christian Doctrine were added those in arithmetic, drawing, geography and grammar. It was also at this time that this thorough going teacher, finding it difficult to procure text-books really suited to his boys, commenced writing his own. The first was History of the Church, the second, The Metric Decimal System simplified. These were followed by a History of Italy, A Prayer-Book for Young People, and others, many of which went through many editions and attained enormous circulation.

As the number of boys in the oratory increased, Don Bosco started buying up more and more land around the tiny original building-all with the donations from his numerous benefactors in Italy and abroad.

In 1857 a new oratory was founded by Don Bosco in another part of Turin. Two years later it became necessary to open a third oratory to look after the swarm of boys who flocked to the other two oratories.

Although enlarged and reconstructed more than once, the first building became quite inadequate. In 1850 it was demolished and an entirely new structure took its place. In 1853 two small workshops were opened; one a shoemaker’s, the other a tailor’s, for teaching the unemployed youngsters of the oratory a trade in order to provide them with the means of earning an honest livelihood. A workshop for teaching carpentry was soon followed by others for book-binding and cabinet-making .Lastly, there was founded a very modest printing-press which has since developed into the great publishing house known all over the world by the name “SocietaEditriceInternazionale”

All this while, from his “old boys”, Don Bosco had been building up a society of men who would help him to develop his work and would carry it on when he died. In December 1859 these young men were formed into a simple society for this purpose. In May 1862, 22 of them took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience - thus forming a true religious congregation. In 1869 this community was officially recognized by the Catholic Church and took the name of “Salesians” after St. Francis of Sales.

Don Bosco also founded a congregation of religious women known as the “Daughters of Mary Help of Christians” to educate girls with the same method as the Salesians used to educate boys.

Now, what is the method which Don Bosco and his Salesians used in order to educate boys? Don Bosco called it the “Preventive System” based on REASON, RELIGION AND KINDNESS. The educator was to spend himself in the demands he made on them, he was to teach them a deep love for truth and virtue, and in all his dealings he was to be patient and kind with them. Don Bosco told his disciples that education was to be based on love, on selfless service for the mental, emotional, moral and spiritual growth of the pupils. His little book on The Preventive System in the Training of Youth forestalled by half-a-century the educational methods which were to be acclaimed as opening a new era when more fashionable educationists “invented” them.

In 1875, he opened a branch in Patagonia, South America. By 1876 there were 10 branches of the Society, one of them in Nice - the first in French territory, which was followed by a college, in Marseilles in 1878. Soon the French foundations numbered a score and spread to Belgium. Together with the spread of Salesian schools in the number of Salesians too increased. In 1880 they numbered over 900.

Praises and triumphs greeted Don Bosco in the last years of his life. The Government of Italy recognized him as an outstanding public benefactor. Educationists sought his advice and profited from thesystempracticedinhis schools. Church authorities, including Popes, regarded his work as providential, rightly fitted to the needs of the times. A third branch of Don Bosco’s work grew under the name of the “Salesian Co-operators”. These were ordinary people in the world who helped Don Bosco’s work by means of prayer and co-operation.

He lived upto 73 years of age. Not a great age; but his work was done. So indefatigably had he worked that it was firmly established. He could no longer stand; his right hand was paralysed. “Do you know where I could buy a new pair of bellows?” he asked pointing to his lungs, “for these won’t work much longer.” Hundreds of people, not counting his own spiritual family, were anxiously waiting for news from the sick room at the oratory when he died. It was a quarter to five in the morning of 31 January 1888. Don Bosco was declared a Saint of the Catholic Church on 1 April 1934.

Let us sum up the day’s work of the farm-boy of Becchi. The Society he founded now numbers over 16,000 members working in 133 countries through more than 2400 institutions. In India alone, there are over 2500 Salesians serving the educational needs of our children through 380 institutions scattered throughout the country. The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians have a membership of 14420 and they work in 57 countries through 1438 institutions. The children educated by the Salesians and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians are a legion. Countless young men and women, well established in society, living lives useful to themselves and to their fellow-beings offer ceaseless thanks to Don Bosco for having saved them from lives of crime and misery.

That is all. But then, that is all he wanted; to guide the young along the path of virtue and goodness.

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