The Living History of the Gospel and Don Bosco

Message of the Provincial 02.09.23

Dear Confreres,

This year, we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the Salesians of Don Bosco in the USA. This was one of the motives for the Rector Major’s recent visit to California, Washington, D.C., and the New York-New Jersey area. It’s interesting to recall some of the details of the arrival of the first SDBs to NY. I thank Fr. Mike Mendl for his work in this area. I hope you have all read "The Zeal of the Salesians is just the Thing...:" Salesian Work in New York. Even if you’re familiar with these events, it’s good for us to hear them again, because they can renew in us the same apostolic zeal that we find in the first Salesians who came here.

Several appeals had been made to Don Bosco, as early as 1883, by Archbishop Corrigan, the Coadjutor Archbishop of Cardinal McCloskey of New York. Corrigan was at the North American College in Rome in 1883 when he wrote: "In the name of the Cardinal of New York, I write to inform you of the wretched lot of the Italians in that city. Last year about 30,000 came to us, but we have only one Italian church and there are few priests. These poor people come to us deprived of everything. Besides that they are, mostly, little instructed in Christian doctrine. Hence it would be truly an apostolic work to take up their spiritual care. Would you be able to undertake it?" Four months later, Corrigan wrote to Don Bosco again: "I cannot, therefore, but beg you to remember the lot of these wretched people; all the more because every year thousands are coming to this port from Italy. Alas! Must all these many Italian immigrants lose their faith?... There are some Italian priests, but they do not want to work among their compatriots."

Finally, on Saturday, November 23, 1898 (almost 125 years ago), three Salesians arrived in New York: Fr. Ernest Coppo, the superior, Fr. Marcellino Scagliola, and Brother Faustino Squassoni. An unknown layman, possibly a vocation prospect, was with them. Coppo had studied at the Salesian school in Borgo San Martino, but he was ordained a diocesan priest. Soon after ordination, he decided to join the Salesians and made his profession at 24 years of age. Four years later, at 28 years of age, he set out as a missionary to New York. Scagliola had been a missionary in Argentina, then worked in Spain before coming to the USA. He was 55 years old when he was assigned to this missionary expedition. Squassoni was 27 years old. He made his first profession one month before he left Italy for New York. Considering their ages and short time in Salesian religious life and that there were only four in the group, we can admire their courageous availability to go forth to an unknown land.

This small group of Salesian missionaries was welcomed by the Archbishop and sent to begin their work right away as chaplains to Catholic schools and religious Sisters. They lived on E. 12th St. and said Mass, heard confessions, and gave catechism classes in the basement of St. Brigid’s. They were not discouraged by the low numbers of Italians who practiced their faith regularly. After spending December going door-to-door with flyers about the services in Italian at St. Brigit’s, 12 people came to Christmas Mass, and only eight came on New Year’s Day. They continued to visit homes, offer Lenten missions, visit hospitals and jails, celebrate the sacraments, preach in Italian in other churches, teach catechism, and prepare the people for Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, and marriage. They arranged for English as a second language classes. They organized parish groups and societies. They started a weekly newspaper in Italian. In a letter to Fr. Rua, Fr. Coppo described a typical Sunday: two Masses with a sermon, confessions, instructions, catechism lessons, meetings of the parish societies, baptisms and marriages, vespers and benediction, the Rosary followed by a sermon and benediction, then home for supper at 10:00 pm. By 1900, they were regularly celebrating four Sunday Masses with about 2,000 people in attendance.

Fr. Hugo and Br. Tom Dion, SDB
Fr. Hugo and Br. Tom Dion, SDB
Photo by Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB

This abbreviated story of the first Salesians to New York helps us to recognize the heart of Jesus beating in these missionaries. At Province Day, Fr. Hugo highlighted Jesus’ response as he disembarks from the boat and meets the vast crowd, "...his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things." Jesus models for the disciples and for us how to be a shepherd or pastor and a teacher. Upon disembarking, the first Salesians who arrived in New York found thousands of Italian Catholics going their separate ways, not coming together for worship, and ignorant of the truths of the faith, like sheep without a shepherd. The Salesians followed Jesus in the spirit of Don Bosco, becoming pastors and teachers to this vast crowd. Their apostolic zeal, loving-kindness, and self-sacrifice won the people over so they could be nourished. It’s interesting to note that this Gospel passage introduces the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Jesus is with the people on the peripheries, sees their hunger, and feeds them. These gestures were repeated by the early Salesian missionaries to our land.

Canada and Eastern USA Insert
USA and Canadian flags merged
Photo courtesy of Canva Pro

The living history of the Gospel and Don Bosco is not only for the SDBs but involves many people who share the Salesian charism, including the young people themselves. They are converted from having been sheep to becoming shepherds. As a significant way to memorialize the visit of the Rector Major for the 125th anniversary of Salesians coming to this land, we did not open a new work or even put up a plaque. Instead, I have challenged each Salesian community to identify and accompany young adults to share in the Salesian mission as volunteers, missionaries, and members of the groups of the Salesian Family. The God who called those first young adult Salesians to be missionaries to Canada and the USA never tires of calling us to follow him more closely and serve his people.

We can be grateful for the witness of men like Coppo, Scargliola, Squassoni, and the fourth unnamed missionary. The legacy of the early Salesians to Canada and the USA inspires us to have the heart of Christ the Good Shepherd, giving ourselves generously in the Salesian mission of evangelization and education. Well aware of our failures and limitations, our inconsistencies and fears, we are willing to step out of the boat with Jesus, that is go beyond our comfort zones and sense of safety, to be like Don Bosco, pastors, and teachers, Salesians for the young people of today.

Fr. Tim Zak

February 9, 2023 - 8:00am
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