John Bosco was born of a poor family on 16th August, 1815 at Becchi, a hamlet belonging to the municipality of Castelnuovo d’Asti (today Castelnuovo Don Bosco) in Italy. He lost his father, Francesco, at the age of two and his mother Margaret (Margherita) had to look after him and his two brothers Antonio and Guiseppe. It was under Mama Margaret that John Bosco learnt farming and praying. She was his inspiration in his growing years. It was Mama Margaret who taught him to see God in the beauty of creation, harvest, rain and above all in the face of the poor who came to their house for food and shelter.
John Bosco had his first dream at the age of nine which changed his entire life. He saw a multitude of very poor boys, playing and blaspheming. He, then, saw a Man who told him that he will conquer these friends with meekness and charity. Man in the vision showed him a majestic Lady who would be his teacher and guide. The Lady told him that he must make himself humble, strong and robust and that at the right time he will understand everything. The Man in the vision was none other than Jesus and the Lady was Mother Mary. It took him many years to understand the full impact and meaning of this dream.
John Bosco learnt juggler’s tricks and acrobat’s secrets and performed for kids of the neighbourhood. He also narrated the morning Mass sermons to these kids and transformed them.
He wanted to study and become a priest to do good to many of these poor boys. He left home in February1827 at the age of twelve to work as a farm-worker. He worked in Moglia farm near Moncucco for three years. He herded cattle to pasture, milked cows and ploughed the fields and studied in the night. John Bosco, then, returned home and resumed his studies in Castelnuovo and later at Chieri. He also learnt different trades like, shoe making, black smithy, carpentry, tailoring and the like. He gave coaching to students to support himself. He founded the “Happy club” to organize the students.
At the age of twenty, John Bosco joined the Seminary at Chieri. He underwent intense study for six years and was ordained a priest on 5th June, 1841 by the Archbishop of Turin and became Don Bosco (in Italy the family name of a priest is preceded by Don which means Father). It was the fulfilment of his dream. He went round the streets of Turin and gathered the poor street boys – peddlers, cobblers, stable-boys, vendor-boys of all types, pavers, stone-cutters, masons and the like. He started the Oratorio (oratory) for these youths at Valdocco. It was not a charitable institution but a shelter home from where these youths could go for work and study. These were the years of great financial difficulties for Don Bosco. Don Bosco’s first benefactor in these trying times was his mother, Mama Margaret. She left her home at Becchi to become the mother of these poor boys. She sold her wedding ring, her ear rings and her necklace to support Don Bosco. Don Bosco started the tailoring and shoe-making shops in the oratory at Valdocco. He also built other workshops for training the orphans, and the abandoned boys in book-binding, carpentry, printing and mechanics.
Some of the boys sheltered by Don Bosco decided to follow his footsteps and spend the rest of their lives with him. True to his pass word ‘at once’ he started the Society of St. Francis de Sales in 1859, commonly known as the Salesian Congregation composed of fathers and brothers (lay religious) for the continuance of the work started by him. The great pioneers of the Salesian Congregation were Michael Rua, John Cagliero (who later became a cardinal) and John Baptist Francesia. Don Bosco’s zeal did not end there. He founded the Society of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters) and the Salesian Co-operators (people living in their own familes). He also founded 59 Salesian houses in six nations. He started the Salesian Mission in Latin America by sending Salesian priests, brothers and sisters. He introduced a System of Education founded on three values, Reason, Religion and Loving-kindness.
Don Bosco passed away on 31st January, 1888 at the age of 73. He said in a whisper the following last words to the Salesians who were keeping vigil around his bed, “Love each other as brothers. Do good to all and evil to none…….Tell my boys that I wait for them all in Paradise.”
Don Bosco was declared ‘Blessed’ in 1929 and canonized by Pope Pius XI on Easter Sunday,1934. Pope John Paul II gave the title of ‘Father and Teacher of Youth’ to Don Bosco.
Today there are 17561 Salesians working in 3512 Don Bosco institutions spread across 130 countries.