The Development of the Oratory
Don Bosco began his work with “the poor and abandoned” young people of Turin in 1841, while he was undertaking post-ordination studies. Don Bosco would gather them for recreation, religious instruction, Mass and prayer. He eventually acquired a permanent place in the suburb of Valdocco and named it the Oratory of St Francis de Sales.
The oratory developed over a period of time to include a youth centre, school, workshops for various trades and boarding facilities. Twenty years after its establishment, the Oratory was a very large and successful establishment with 600 boarders, a few hundred day boys, and even greater numbers on Sundays and holy days. Part of Don Bosco’s genius was that even in the midst of increasing institutionalisation, he was able to maintain the sense of familiarity, confidence and trust with the students and empower his ever increasing number of co-workers to relate to others in a similar fashion.
The Formation of the Salesian Society
Don Bosco cultivated the leadership abilities of his older boys and was joined by many collaborators. He gradually formed his followers into a unified group and trained them in his pastoral and educative spirit. On the evening of January 26, 1854, a small group of “Salesians” gathered for the first time and a little over a year later made private vows to Don Bosco. His plans received the blessing of Pope Pius IX, but it took him more than 15 years to gain final approval from the Vatican for the Constitutions of the Society of St Francis de Sales.
The work of the Salesians expanded quickly, first in Italy and then beyond. By the time Don Bosco died in 1888 there were 773 Salesians, eleven missionary expeditions had been commissioned, there were almost 150 Salesian missionaries in South America, and the work of the Salesians had already expanded to France (1875), Argentina (1875), Uruguay (1876), Spain (1881), Brazil (1882), Austria (1887) and England (1887).
Expansion in Europe and South America continued after Don Bosco’s death under the leadership of Fr Michael Rua. World War 1 (1914 – 18) severely disrupted the growth and operation of the Salesians, especially in Europe. The vitality of the Salesians was revived after the war and many new and difficult mission territories were accepted in Central Africa, Brazil, China, Paraguay and Assam. Works were also established in new countries including Hungary, Germany and Cuba.
Trying Times of War and Persecution
World War II was as disastrous for the Salesians as it was for the whole world, with many priests and brothers killed in hostilities or falling victim to the violent persecution of the Nazi regime. Many works were closed or destroyed. Even the Oratory in Turin was damaged.
After World War II, the Communist persecution of the Church brought immense suffering to the Salesians of Central and Eastern Europe. Many works were closed. Large numbers of Salesians were deported, executed or imprisoned.
Such religious persecution was not an entirely new experience for the Salesians. They had already suffered persecution in Ecuador, France, Portugal and Spain. In 1930, Bishop Louis Versiglia and Fr Callisto Caravario were martyred in China; both were canonised saints by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Further persecutions occurred in China and Vietnam.
Despite the trials and sufferings of war and persecution, the Salesians re-organised and expanded after World War II. In 1950 there were close to 15,000 Salesians working in more than 1,000 houses. By 1965 there were in excess of 20,000 Salesians throughout the world.
The renewal of the life of the Church initiated by the Second Vatican Council had a deep impact upon the Salesian congregation. Like all religious institutes the Salesians were encouraged to return to the spirit of their founder, and to re-interpret that spirit in the light of the contemporary situation. This process of renewal led to a greater emphasis upon understanding the person and spirit of Don Bosco, a re-focusing of efforts to work with young people who are poor, disadvantaged or marginalised, a highlighting of the uniqueness of the “Preventive System”, the typically Salesian way of working with the young, and a renewal of the Salesians’ missionary spirit.
In 1988, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Don Bosco, the Salesians officially launched ‘Project Africa’, which aimed to increase the Salesian presence and work in Africa. By 2005, there were 1,145 Salesians in 171 houses in 42 countries.
The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe enabled a renewal of Salesian activity throughout the former communist nations. In 1990, the informal works that had continued in countries in the former Soviet Union was once again made official. This had led to an expansion of works in countries including Belorussia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. The Salesians returned to Albania in 1992 and opened new works in Bulgaria (1994) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995).
Missionary efforts have also intensified in Asia and Oceania. Since 1980 the Salesians have opened works in Papua New Guinea (1981), Samoa (1981), Indonesia (1985), Cambodia (1994), Solomon Islands (1995), Nepal (1995), Fiji (1998), Pakistan (1999), Mongolia (2001) and Kuwait (2001)