Born: August 16, 1815, Castelnuovo d’Asti (now Castelnuovo Don Bosco), Italy
Ordained: June 5, 1841, Turin
Died: January 31, 1888, Turin
Canonized: April 1, 1934
Feast day: January 31
Popularly known as Don Bosco, St. John Bosco is one of the most beloved of modern saints. From his childhood, he wanted to dedicate his life to keeping youngsters close to God. As a boy, he used to repeat to his friends stories he had read or sermons he had heard and lead his listeners in the Rosary. From traveling jugglers, acrobats, and magicians he learned tricks and put on his own shows; the price of admission was joining in the common recitation of the Rosary.
As a young priest, Don Bosco went to Turin. Hordes of boys were descending on the capital, looking for work in the factories and construction projects. Many of these youths were orphans, many were seasonal workers from the outlying farmlands, and those with families were usually poor and often had family problems. Don Bosco devised a plan to care for delinquents after their release and to keep boys out of trouble. He called the institution that he envisioned an “oratory,” a place of prayer. It was much more than that; it was a place to play and make friends, a school, an employment service, and a home. Every Sunday and feast day Don Bosco gathered the poor and the abandoned youths of Turin, heard their confessions, said Mass for them, preached in a language they could understand, led them in games and hikes, told them stories, and listened to their problems. He found them places to stay; before long he opened a hospice that eventually housed hundreds. He found them jobs with reputable employers. He opened a night school, and later a trade school and what we would call a college prep program.
All of this work Don Bosco put under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, who was known for his patience and gentleness, qualities essential to educators. Hence the institution was called the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.
Around 1850 Don Bosco began singling out youngsters who might become good priests; in return for helping him with catechism lessons and supervision, he offered them an education. Some of these youths decided to stay with him, and in 1859 with 22 of them, he formed the Society of St. Francis de Sales—the Salesian Society. In the 1870s, with St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello he founded the Salesian Sisters to do the same sort of work for poor girls.
The first Salesian work outside Turin opened in 1863; by the time Don Bosco died his Salesians, men and women numbered 1,400 and were in nine countries in Europe and South America. Today they labor for poor and abandoned young people on all 6 continents, in about 130 countries, and number about 28,000. In addition, there are tens of thousands of members of the wider Salesian family: cooperators, alumni, a secular institute, and several small religious congregations.