Saint John Bosco, affectionately known as Don Bosco, was the visionary founder of the Salesian Society. Born to impoverished parents in Becchi, near Castelnuovo in Piedmont, Italy, on August 16, 1815, he passed away on January 31, 1888. Recognized for his sanctity, he was declared Venerable by Pope Pius X on July 21, 1907.
Losing his father at just over two years old, young John, along with his brothers, was raised by their mother, Margaret Bosco. His childhood was split between shepherding and receiving rudimentary education from the local parish priest. Despite financial constraints often pulling him away from his studies and into field work, John harbored a relentless passion for learning.
In 1835, he commenced his seminary studies at Chieri, culminating in his ordination as a priest in 1841 by Archbishop Franzoni of Turin. Post-ordination, Don Bosco moved to Turin, dedicating himself to priestly duties with fervor. A significant turning point in his life occurred during prison visits with Don Cafasso, where the plight of incarcerated children deeply moved him, steering him towards his life’s mission of aiding these marginalized youth.
The inception of the “Oratory” traces back to December 8, 1841, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A pivotal moment occurred when Don Bosco encountered Bartollomea Garelli, a young boy mistreated in a church. This encounter laid the foundation of the Oratory, named possibly after St. Philip Neri and characterized by its emphasis on prayer. Starting with Bartholomeo and a few others attracted by Don Bosco’s kindness, the Oratory grew rapidly, reaching 400 boys by March 1846.
The Oratory’s expansion necessitated a stable location. Activities ranged from outdoor excursions to music classes, recognizing the positive impact of music on the youth. After moving through several temporary locations due to various challenges and opposition, Don Bosco, with his mother’s support, established the first permanent Salesian home, eventually accommodating around a thousand boys.
Acknowledging the transformative power of his work, local authorities eventually supported Don Bosco’s initiatives, including the establishment of technical schools and workshops. In 1868, he undertook the construction of a church in the Valdocco area of Turin, dedicated to Our Lady, Help of Christians, overcoming financial hurdles to realize this vision.
The success of the Oratory and Don Bosco’s approach lay in his profound understanding and empathy towards disadvantaged youth. He championed a method of education rooted in love, kindness, and encouragement, eschewing punitive measures. He believed in nurturing the children’s interests, especially in music, and emphasized the formation of character and will over mere academic achievement.
Don Bosco’s preventive approach in education and his belief in the power of confession and communion were central to his philosophy. He saw recreation and play as vital components of child development, living by the principle of avoiding sin rather than imposing strict discipline.
By the time of his death, the Salesian Society had expanded globally, with 250 houses serving 130,000 children. His educational legacy continued through his pupils, many of whom became priests and teachers, spreading the Salesian method across various continents.
Don Bosco’s life and work exemplify his belief in the transformative power of education and compassion, leaving an enduring impact on the care and upbringing of youth, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Photo credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr
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