The Nineteenth Century Apostle of the Little Ones, by E. Uhlrich

Saint John BoscoWhen one man in his lifetime has cared for, trained, and sent out into the world, as useful and law-abiding citizens, ten million children, then the attention of people may well be drawn to him again and again, for it is the lives of such men that keep the heart of the world from despair.

He who was to have such wonderful sympathy and even more wonderful influence on neglected and unfortunate childhood and youth, began his life as a poor, hardworking boy, even as St. Vincent de Paul did in his day. Giovanni Bosco was his name, and he was the son of humble peasants and herded his father’s sheep until he was fifteen years old. Then a kindly priest discovered the boy’s unusual gifts of mind and heart, and taught him the elements of Latin and Greek. After that Giovanni was sent to the seminary at Chieri, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1841. Full of zeal to fit himself for his work as a shepherd of souls, he went to Turin and entered an institute for the training of priests in practical work.

It is notable that his first experience was in visiting prisons. Here his heart and mind were touched by the spectacle of the many youthful criminals he met, and he was constantly thinking how to reclaim them and, even more important, how to prevent them from entering upon criminal ways at all.

It was on the 8th of December, in 1841, that Don Bosco found, in a most humble occurrence, the occasion which showed him the mission for which God had destined him. It was, as so often happens, but a simple thing; but, when we are open to the guidance of the Divine Will, the simplest things may have the greatest import. There was no boy to serve his Mass, and a street-boy, who happened to look into the sacristy, was asked by the sexton to do so.

“I do not know how,” said the boy.

“Never mind,” said the sexton; “I’ll show you what to do.”

“But I never was at Mass before.”

“Stupid creature!” said the sexton, angry now, “what are you doing here then?” And he boxed the boy’s ears so hard that the little fellow went off crying. At this Don Bosco turned around and reproved the astonished sexton for his crossness.

“But what difference does that make to your reverence?”

“It makes a great deal of difference to me, for that boy is my friend. Call him back at once; I must talk to him.”

The sexton did so and the poor boy came back; Don Bosco asked him kindly if he had never heard Mass before, and he said “No.”

“Then,” said Don Bosco, “stay for this Mass which I am going to celebrate, and when it is over I shall talk to you a little while, if you will wait.”

The boy, whose heart had been won by Don Bosco’s kindly manner, gladly agreed to stay.

After Mass, Don Bosco said to him: “What is your name, my little friend?”

“Bartolomeo Garelli.”

“Where are you from?”

“Asti.”

“Is your father still living?”

“No, he is dead.”

“And your mother?”

“She is dead too.”

“How old are you?”

“I am fifteen years old.”

“Can you read and write?”

“I don’t know anything at all.”

“Did you make your first Communion?”

“No, not yet.”

“Did you ever go to confession?”

“I did when I was very little.”

“Why don’t you go to Sunday-school?”

“I am ashamed because the other boys are all younger than I am and know so much more, and I always have such old clothes.”

“If I were to teach you all by yourself, would you like to come?”

“Oh I would be very glad to come, if no one would box my ears for coming.”

“You need not be afraid of any one. You are my friend now; no one else will have anything to say to you. When shall we begin?”

“Whenever it pleases you, father.”

“Very well, we will begin at once.”

Don Bosco found that the boy did not even know how to make the sign of the cross. Yet this poor, untaught child of the street became the corner-stone, so to say, of Don Bosco’s life-work. In a little while Bartolomeo brought friends of his along, and they in turn brought their friends. By the 25th of March, in 1842, there were thirty members of Don Bosco’s class. Some of them were apprentices to the different trades, some were street vagabonds, and some of them grown men. The next year there were three hundred of them. Don Bosco had to find a place of meeting larger than his little sacristy; but, alas! no sooner was he well established in his new quarters than notice was given him to move.

People insisted that they did not want him and his noisy, disreputable vagabonds in their own respectable neighborhood. When, at last, there seemed no hope of finding a suitable meeting place in the city for his boys he did not despair. For two months, each Sunday he led them out into the suburbs of Turin, said Mass for them in some church, then taught them under the open sky. Afterwards he let them play games and amuse themselves, and in the evening the whole crowd went back into the city, singing hymns as they went.

In 1844, with the help of some kindly priests, Don Bosco opened the first night schools, teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. These schools were soon imitated all over Italy.

Don Bosco, however, continued to meet with trials and tribulations in his work, as seems true in every good cause. His plans were so novel and so large that he was even accused of being crazy. A crazy man, however, ought to be out of harm’s way, and so it was quietly arranged that Don Bosco should be taken to an insane asylum. Two prominent gentlemen of Turin were to manage his transfer to the asylum. They hired a closed carriage and drove to Don Bosco’s house. He received them very kindly, and soon was talking to them enthusiastically about the oratorium and the great church he wanted to build, the schools and the workshops which would be grouped around this centre. He spoke so glowingly that one could have thought he saw the whole thing before his eyes. The gentlemen looked at each other knowingly, as if to say: “It is plain that he is out of his mind.”

“A little fresh air will be good for you, Don Bosco,” one of them ventured. “We have a carriage outside. You might drive a little way with us.”

Don Bosco smiled and went out with the two gentlemen. They stepped back in order to let him enter first, but he begged them to precede him. They did so and then Don Bosco hastily shut the carriage door and called out to the driver, “Ready.”

The driver had been instructed to drive to the asylum as fast as the horses could go, and not to mind any possible protests or resistance. So he started off at a gallop at Don Bosco’s word.

When the carriage arrived at the asylum, the gentlemen inside were in such a rage that the superintendent ordered them put into separate cells at once, and, if necessary, in straitjackets. Luckily for them, the chaplain of the asylum knew them, and they were let go about their business. However, they at least were convinced that Don Bosco was saner than some people thought him, and did not wish to be the agents of any more forced cures for him.

Don Bosco’s trials now took another form. The police of Turin began to take note of his boys and to suspect in them potential socialists. Indeed, the very existence of the work was threatened, when King Charles Albert, then King of Sardinia, took personal action in behalf of “Don Bosco’s young rogues,” as he put it, and even sent sixty dollars to help the work along. With that the worst storms were over. Don Bosco organized his Oratorium of St. Francis of Sales, as he called his meeting place, for he had a special devotion to St. Francis. He chose the name “Oratorium” because the earliest meetings were in the chapel in which he met that first, pitifully ignorant street boy.

In the spring of 1846, however, he was homeless once moreā€”put out again for the sake of his boys. Thereupon he leased a piece of enclosed land outside of the city. Here, in the open air, under the free sky, the Sunday meetings were again held undisturbed. Early in the morning Don Bosco was there, seated on a grassy mound and hearing confessions. Some of the boys were kneeling near by, waiting their turn, others were saying their prayers, and still others, farther away, were quietly playing. At nine o’clock Don Bosco called his boys together. He had no bell, so one of the boys beat on an ancient drum as a signal. Then he separated them into little divisions, and sent each division into a particular church to hear Mass. Later they returned, and there was Sunday-school, games, and singing.

After awhile a little shed near by was rented and arranged for a chapel. In the fall of 1846 he added a few rooms, and thus he began his first school. To be sure the boys’ dormitory was nothing but a hayloft pressed into service, while the housekeeper was Don Bosco’s sturdy peasant mother, who had come to the city to help on the work of her beloved son.

In 1851 he was able to build a church dedicated to St. Francis de Sales, and two new houses.

Now there is a magnificent group of buildings on this same land. The church is in the centre; two imposing wings are the “Oratorium,” of which Don Bosco had dreamed and talked so enthusiastically that once people even thought him crazy. The dream has more than come true. There is a little town in itself here. All about are buildings representing various kinds of trades and activity. There is a great printing establishment with ten presses, a book bindery, a large locksmith shop, a carpentering shop, a shoe factory, and a tailoring establishment. There are, moreover, libraries, study-rooms, classrooms, dormitories, gardens, and playgrounds. Over one thousand people live here and follow their various employments.

Don Bosco is dead; he died on January 31, 1888. But his work went on under Don Michelle Rua, who was himself an orphan, raised and trained by Don Bosco. Here, in the mother house, are some thirty Salesian priests, as the members of the congregation founded by Don Bosco, at the suggestion of Minister Ratazzi, are called; nearly two hundred Salesian brothers, who are the master workmen, and four hundred students. In addition to the resident pupils that are being trained and cared for, about five hundred boys and apprentices spend their Sundays and recreation hours at the institution, something in the way in which children in this country go to the Settlements that have been established here and there in the large cities.

More than one hundred and fifty of these institutions were founded by Don Bosco in Italy, France, Spain, the Tyrol, and England. He also founded a sisterhood, so as to be able to take care of young girls as well as of boys, and to help in the missions which he established in South America, especially in Patagonia, where fourteen thousand savages were baptized by his missionaries before Don Bosco’s death. Latterly the sisterhood he founded has been working among the neglected Italians in this country too, especially in New Orleans, and there are Salesian Fathers of Don Bosco in New York City. This special missionary work, however, was not counted in the general estimate of the ten million children saved by Don Bosco.

Every year eighteen thousand apprentices leave his institutions and go out to work, trained in body and mind for contact with the world.

As a means of maintaining his work, Don Bosco founded a third society to which men and women, lay or clerical, can belong, their object being to help provide means for this great work, and the Holy Father himself belongs to this third society.

In appearance Don Bosco, the simple country boy, who was destined to do this great work in this day and age, and to show the world one true way of helping to solve the problems of labor and capital and government that disturb the nations of the earth so much now, was a tall man of very pleasing features and manner. He was not very eloquent as a talker, but his heart was filled with a heavenly love for poor and unhappy childhood. Few of us are so limited in means, or in opportunity, but we can follow him a little way. Even the young children who go to Sunday-school often know, or could easily learn, of some neglected child that has perhaps no parents, or has parents who have no faith, and which therefore hears nothing of religion and of right. Like Garelli, Don Bosco’s first pupil and follower, regular Sunday-school children could take such a child to their own Sunday-school. The children of the Paulist Sunday-school in New York City, for instance, are constantly encouraged to bring with them any child they know which does not go to Sunday-school in any other place. If, in addition to its spiritual neglect, the child is in bodily want, bringing it to Sunday-school attracts the attention of older people who are able, on occasion, to give it material as well as spiritual help.

To those of us who are older, surely there can be no greater appeal than that of childhood for love and instruction. To withhold these is a more bitter injustice even than to withhold food and clothing. The one causes the body to suffer, but the other may mean the death of the soul, and delivers the body to the lawlessness and to the excesses that lead to untimely death in one generation and help on that lamentable degeneration–physically, morally, and mentally–in the succeeding generations which is, to-day, one of the most discouraging questions in the dark problems of the great cities.

And it must always be remembered that among the poor and the unfortunate the inspiration for better things must come from those who have more than they of means, of time, of intelligence, and, above all, of devotion.

In every age God seems to have raised up men with a genius for holiness, to speak to the people according to the needs of their day. And thus, in a century in which the powers of darkness were directed towards destroying childhood and youth by godless teaching, and by lack of any teaching at all, either sacred or profane, the providence of Divine Love raised up the humble peasant priest of Turin as an apostle to youth and a bulwark against its enemies.

There is a vast margin for the following and the extension of his example right here among us. We have with us always, not only the unfortunate and neglected little ones of every race and color on the earth, but, even more pitiable, those little ones who, by nature and inheritance, would be with us, as a matter of course, were it not for the careless drifting of their parents on the easy and pleasant current of indifference, that spiritual sluggishness in some ways more reprehensible and certainly less respectable than honest doubt or definite unbelief.

– article originally published in The Catholic World magazine in 1903; produced by Michael Gray, Diocese of San Jose, California for Project Gutenberg