John Melchior Bosco (Italian: Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco; 16 August 1815 – 31 January 1888), popularly known as Don Bosco [ˌdɔm ˈbɔsko], was an Italian Roman Catholic priest, educator, and writer of the 19th century. While working in Turin, where the population suffered many of the ill-effects of industrialization and urbanization, he dedicated his life to the betterment and education of street children, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth. He developed teaching methods based on love rather than punishment, a method that became known as the Salesian Preventive System.
A follower of the spirituality and philosophy of Francis de Sales, Bosco was an ardent devotee of Mary, mother of Jesus, under the title Mary Help of Christians. He later dedicated his works to De Sales when he founded the Salesians of Don Bosco, based in Turin. Together with Maria Domenica Mazzarello, he founded the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, a religious congregation of nuns dedicated to the care and education of poor girls. He taught Dominic Savio, of whom he wrote a biography that helped the young boy be canonized.
On 18 April 1869, one year after the construction of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin, Don Bosco established the Association of Mary Help of Christians (ADMA) connecting it with commitments easily fulfilled by most common people, to the spirituality and the mission of the Salesian Congregation (CG 24 SDB, 1996, NR. 80). The ADMA was founded to promote the veneration of the Most Holy Sacrament and Mary Help of Christians (Don Bosco, Association of the Devotees of Mary Help of Christians, San Benigno can. 1890, page 33).
In 1876 Bosco founded a movement of laity, the Association of Salesian Cooperators, with the same educational mission to the poor. In 1875, he began to publish the Salesian Bulletin. The Bulletin has remained in continuous publication, and is currently published in 50 different editions and 30 languages.
Bosco established a network of organizations and centers to carry on his work. Following his beatification in 1929, he was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in 1934.
John Bosco was born in the evening of 16 August 1815 in the hillside hamlet of Becchi, Italy. He was the youngest son of Francesco Bosco (1784–1817) and Margherita Occhiena. He had two older brothers, Antonio, and Giuseppe (1813–1862). The Boscos of Becchi were farmhands of the Moglian Family. John Bosco was born into a time of great shortage and famine in the Piedmontese countryside, following the devastation wrought by the Napoleonic wars and drought in 1817.
When he was little more than two years old his father Francesco died, leaving the support of three boys to his mother, Margherita. She played a strong role in Bosco’s formation and personality, and was an early supporter of her son’s ideals.
In 1825, when he was nine, Bosco had the first of a series of dreams which would play an influential role in his outlook and work. This first dream “left a profound impression on him for the rest of his life”, according to his own memoirs. Bosco apparently saw a multitude of very poor boys who play and blaspheme, and a man, who “appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing”. The man said to him: “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.”
John Bosco, when he was ten years old at the festive oratory, started watching his classmates attitudes and in every fight he was the referee. The older boys were scared of him because John Bosco knew their strengths and their weaknesses.
When traveling entertainers performed at a local feast in the nearby hills, John watched and studied the jugglers’ tricks and the acrobats’ secrets. Then he would put on shows of his skills as a juggler, magician and acrobat with prayers before and after the performance. The money he needed to prepare all the shows was taken from selling the birds he hunted and money his mother gave him because she trusted him. Poverty prevented any serious attempt at schooling. John’s early years were spent as a shepherd, and he received his first instruction from a parish priest. His childhood experiences are thought to have inspired him to become a priest. At the time, being a priest was generally seen as a profession for the privileged classes, rather than farmers, although it was not unknown. Some biographers portray his older brother Antonio as the main obstacle for Bosco’s ambition to study, as the brother protested that John was just “a farmer like us!”
On a cold morning in February 1827, John left his home and went to look for work as a farm-servant. At 12, he found life at home unbearable because of the continuous quarrels with Antonio. Having to face life by himself at such a young age may have developed his later sympathies to help abandoned boys. After begging unsuccessfully for work, Bosco ended up at the wine farm of Louis Moglia.Although Bosco could pursue some studies by himself, he was not able to attend school for two more years. In 1830 he met Joseph Cafasso, a young priest who identified some natural talent and supported his first schooling. In 1835 Bosco entered the seminary at Chieri, next to the Church of the Immacolata Concezione. In 1841, after six years of study, he was ordained a priest on the eve of Trinity Sunday by Archbishop Franzoni of Turin.
John Bosco was first called to be chaplain of the Rifugio (“Refuge”), a girls’ boarding school founded in Turin by the Marchioness Giulia di Barolo. His other ministries included visiting prisoners, teaching catechism, and helping out at many country parishes.
At that time, the city of Turin had a population of 117,000 inhabitants. It reflected the effects of industrialization and urbanization: numerous poor families lived in the slums of the city, having come from the countryside in search of a better life. In visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was disturbed to see so many boys from 12 to 18 years of age. He was determined to find a means to prevent them from ending up here. Because of population growth and migration to the city, Bosco found the traditional methods of parish ministry inefficient. He decided it was necessary to try another form of apostolate, and he began to meet the boys where they worked and gathered in shops and marketplaces. They were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from far away places, he recalled in his brief Memoires.
The Oratorio was not simply a charitable institution, and its activities were not limited to Sundays. For Don Bosco, it became his permanent occupation. He looked for jobs for the unemployed. Some of the boys did not have sleeping quarters and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. Twice he tried to provide lodgings in his house. The first time they stole the blankets; the second they emptied the hay-loft. He did not give up. In May 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy from Valencia, in one of the three rooms he was renting in the slums of Valdocco, where he was living with his mother. He and “Mamma Margherita” began taking in orphans. The boys sheltered by Don Bosco numbered 36 in 1852, 115 in 1854, 470 in 1860 and 600 in 1861, 800 is the maximum sometime later.
Bosco and his oratory moved around town for a number of years; he was turned out of several places in succession. After only two months based in the church of St. Martin, the entire neighborhood expressed its annoyance with the noise coming from the boys at play. A formal complaint was lodged against them with the municipality. Rumors also circulated that the meetings conducted by the priest with his boys were dangerous; their recreation could be turned into a revolution against the government. The group was evicted.
In the archives of the Salesian Congregation is a contract of apprenticeship, dated November 1851; another one on stamped paper costing 40 cents, dated February 8, 1852; and others with later dates. These are among the first contracts of apprenticeship to be found in Turin. All of them are signed by the employer, the apprentice, and Don Bosco. In those contracts, Don Bosco touched on many sensitive issues. Some employers customarily made servants and scullery-boys of the apprentices. Don Bosco obliged them to agree to employ the boys only in their acknowledged trade. Employers used to beat the boys. Don Bosco required them to agree that corrections be made only verbally. He cared for their health, and demanded that they are given rest on feast days and that they are given an annual holiday. But in spite of all the efforts and contracts, the situation of the apprentices of the time remained difficult.
Bosco died on 31 January 1888. His funeral was attended by thousands. Soon after there was popular demand to have him canonized. The Archdiocese of Turin investigated and witnesses were called to determine if Bosco was worthy to be declared a saint. The Salesians, Daughters and Cooperators gave supportive testimonies. But many remembered Bosco’s controversies in the 1870s with Archbishop Gastaldi and some others high in the Church hierarchy thought him a loose cannon and a “wheeler-dealer”. In the canonization process, testimony was heard about how he went around Gastaldi to get some of his men ordained and about their lack of academic preparation and ecclesiastical decorum. Political cartoons from the 1860s and later showed him shaking money from the pockets of old ladies or going off to America for the same purpose. These cartoons were not forgotten. Opponents of Bosco, including some cardinals, were in a position to block his canonization.
Pope Pius XI had known Bosco and pushed the cause forward. Pius XI beatified Bosco on June 2, 1929 and canonized him on Easter Sunday (April 1) of 1934, when he was given the title of “Father and Teacher of Youth”.
While Bosco had been popularly known as the patron saint of illusionists, on 30 January 2002, Silvio Mantelli petitioned Pope John Paul II to formally declare Bosco the patron of stage magicians. Catholic stage magicians who practice gospel magic venerate Bosco by offering free magic shows to underprivileged children on his feast day.
Bosco’s work was carried on by his early pupil, collaborator and companion, Michael Rua, who was appointed rector major of the Salesian Society by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.