Giovanni Bosco was born in 1815 in the farming hamlet of Becchi, now part of the comune which is now named in his honour as Castelnuovo Don Bosco, in north-western Italy), not far from Turin.
When he was little more than four years old, his father died, leaving the support of the sons Antonio (oldest) and Giovanni to their mother, Margherita. Giovanni Bosco’s early years were spent on the farm, but he showed ready intelligence and aptitude for study, which was favored by his mother but opposed by Antonio, now head of the family.
Bosco liked to gather other children, entertain them with tricks, jokes, stories, and teach them Catholic catechism (something like Sunday school). Through a series of dreams (in which he saw Mary), he felt to help poor children like himself, by becoming a priest whom they could approach easily. Not like the cold, standoffish clergy he had known.
Bosco frequented the public elementary school in Castelnuovo at the age of 15. He quickly completed the lower grades and graduated with honors in 1835. Then he was accepted into the diocesan seminary at Chier. After six years of study, in 1841, he was ordained a priest in Turin, becoming known as Don Bosco, or “Father Bosco”.
Don Bosco began as the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school founded in Turin by the Marchioness di Barolo, called the Rifugio (“Refuge”). But he had many ministries on the side such as visiting prisoners, teaching catechism and helping out at country parishes. A growing group of boys would come to the Rifugio on Sundays and feast days to play and learn their catechism. They were too old to join the younger children in regular catechism classes in the parishes, which mostly chased them away. This was the beginning of the “Oratory of St. Francis de Sales”. Because of all their disorderly racket, the Marchioness spared her girls the distraction by terminating Bosco’s employment at the Rifugio.
Don Bosco and his Oratory wandered around town for a few years and were turned out of several places in succession. Finally, he was able to rent a shed from a Mr. Pinardi. His mother moved in with him. The Oratory had a home, then, in 1846, in the new Valdocco neighborhood on the north end of town. Next year, he and “Mamma Margaret” began taking in orphans.
Don Bosco’s capability to attract numerous boys and adult helpers was connected to his “Preventive System of Education”. He believed education to be a “matter of the heart,” and said that the boys must not only be loved, but know that they are loved. He also pointed to three components of the Preventive System: reason, religion, and kindness. Music and games also went into the mix.