Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco (1815-1888), was an Italian Roman Catholic priest and the founder of the Salesian religious congregation. He received the traditional Italian honorific “Don” when he was ordained as a priest in 1841, after having studied for 6 years at the seminary of Chieri.
During his early priesthood, Don Bosco visited the Turin prisons and felt deeply saddened to see so many boys there (12-18 years of age). They were in a desperate situation with nobody to guide them or to help them learn a profession and change their prospects for the future. Don Bosco then decided to commit himself to putting an end to these social wrongs. He reached out to street children, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth.
In 1847 Don Bosco started an Oratory in the suburb of Valdoccoand where he provided refuge to youngsters that didn’t have anywhere to go. They received catechesis and came together to pray, learn and play. Don Bosco also opened workshops where the boys could learn skills and he assisted in negotiating good contracts with employers. Over the years the number of boys sheltered by Don Bosco grew vastly, up to 800 at its maximum.
Don Bosco developed his own education system based on the values: reason, religion and loving kindness. He was convinced that there was no such thing as a “bad child”. Instead of using punishment, he firmly believed that patience, understanding and caring would bring out the best in a young person. In his student-centred approach all are treated as equals. He considered it the educator’s responsibility to inspire cooperation, confidence, self-actualization and social participation.
To help him with his work, Don Bosco gathered people around him who pursued the same ideals and were committed to young people out of their connection with God. In 1859 an official society, the “Salesians of Don Bosco” was formed. Don Bosco named the congregation after Saint Francis de Sales, a 17th-century bishop of Geneva who was known for his kindness and gentleness. Don Bosco wanted his Salesians to act in this way whilst carrying out his vision. The number of Salesians grew and Don Bosco’s fame spread throughout Europe and beyond.
Don Bosco remained involved until the end and when he died at the age of 72, the movement that he inspired was only just beginning. It continues to this day, the Salesian Society is the third largest Catholic religious order in the world. The Salesians nowadays operate shelters for homeless or at-risk youths; schools; technical, vocational, and language instruction centres for youths and adults; and boys’ clubs and community centres.
Don Bosco was declared a Saint in 1934 by Pope Pius XI.