John Bosco was born in the farmtown of Becchi, Italy on August 16, 1815. At the age of two, young John lost his father, leaving him, his older step-brother and his younger brother to be raised by his mother, Margaret. A good woman, she taught them to pray to God and to help the less fortunate.
In 1835, at the age of 20, John entered the seminary, and following six years of study and preparation, he was ordained a priest in 1841. His first assignment was in the city of Turin, where there was widespread poverty. It was in Turin’s poor neighborhoods that John, now known as Father - or “Don” - Bosco, began to work with abandoned boys. He tirelessly taught them catechism, organized games for them, and sought work for them. In 1846, Don Bosco obtained property in the impoverished area of Turin known as Valdocco. There he, with the help of his mother and some other priest-friends, opened what he called “a festive oratory” that became a home, a school, a church and a playground for hundreds of boys.
In 1859, Don Bosco invited some of his older boys to remain with him and work for the young. These were the very first Salesians. He drew up a set of rules for these young helpers, which became the Rule of the Society of St. Francis de Sales, approved definitively in 1874 by Pope Pius IX. This society, named for St. Francis de Sales, an early-modern bishop in France renowned for his kindness and zeal, is known today as the Salesians of Don Bosco.
St. John Bosco was an exceptional educator. His acute intelligence, common sense, pastoral heart and profound spirituality led him to create a system of education that developed the whole person - body, heart, mind and spirit. This system keeps the young person at the center of the whole educational enterprise, fostering their growth and freedom.
To distinguish his method from the repressive system of education prevalent in 19th century Italy, he called his own method the ‘preventive’ system – because it sought to prevent the need for punishment by placing the student in an environment in which he knew he was loved and was encouraged to be the best he could be.
A congenial, friendly and holistic approach to education, the preventive system creates a climate that ‘draws forth’ (educere) the best in the student, that encourages his complete and fullest self-expression, and that assists him in acquiring habits that will lead him to opt in favor of what is good, healthy, joyful and life-enhancing.
The Salesians of Don Bosco spread to several countries during Don Bosco’s lifetime, and his death on January 31, 1888 did not slow the order's growth. The Salesians are the second largest religious order in the Catholic Church, numbering today over 15,000 priests and brothers who work for the young in over 130 countries around the world.
St. John Bosco was beatified in 1929 and canonized in 1934. One of his students, Dominic Savio, has been canonized as well, and the causes of numerous members of the Salesian Family are in process.