THE LIFE OF ST. JOHN BOSCO
St. John Bosco's mother, like the mother of many great men, was a notable woman, one of the heroic company of Catholic wives and mothers who carry the great ideals of their faith into the smallest things of life. Margaret Occhiena was a native of Capriglio, a little village among the vine-clad hills of Piedmont in the neighborhood of Turin. In early womanhood she married Francis Bosco, a young widower, who farmed his tiny property in the neighborhood hamlet of Becchi. Francis Bosco had a son by his first marriage, a boy of nine, Anthony, and he had taken his old mother to live with him. Margaret took the motherless boy and the old woman to her heart and made the little household a real home. Joseph, her eldest son, was born in 1813, John two years later.
The little family was very happy in spite of poverty, until, scarcely two years after the birth of John, Francis Bosco died of a sudden attack of pneumonia. Little John never for got how his mother took him into the room where his father lay very still on the bed. She was leading him out again when he pulled back, crying that he wanted to “stay with father.” Margaret burst into tears. “My little John, you no longer have a father,” she said, and a strange chill fell upon the heart of the child. It was an uphill fight, now that the breadwinner was gone, but Margaret set herself bravely to the task of providing for the household. There was much work to be done at Becchi, and the boys were taught to work hard. At four years old, little John was already doing his share, tending the cattle, gathering sticks for the fire, or watching the bread his mother had put down to bake. They lived hard too—up with the dawn in winter and summer, a slice of dry bread for breakfast, and off with a cheerful face to whatever the day’s work might be.
Margaret Bosco, though herself unlearned, was a born educator. The beginning and end of her teaching was God. Morning and evening the whole household knelt together, asking their daily bread, both for soul and body, for courage to do well, and pardon for what was done less well. Margaret seldom punished. “God always sees you,” she used to say, “even when I do not. I may not be there, but He is always there.” She would speak to her children of His beauty, revealed in the lovely world of His creation, and when their tiny vineyard, as sometimes happened, was stripped of its fruit by a sudden hailstorm: “God gave them to us,” she would say, “and He has taken them away. He is the Master; may His Will be done.” And when in the winter evenings they sat by the fire, listening to the wind that howled around the little cottage, “Children,” she would say, “let us thank God, who is so good to us. He is truly a Father— our Father in Heaven.” When the children were tempted to be untruthful: “Take care,” she would say, “God sees our most secret thoughts”—and out would come the truth.
Those were terrible years of war and famine in Italy. Beggars of all description went from village to village seeking food, and it was noticed that even though Margaret herself might be in need, no one ever went hungry from her door, nor was any wanderer refused shelter. If anyone in the hamlet was sick and needing wine or food, however low might be her own little store, she would give what she had. Anthony, John’s stepbrother, was a difficult boy, surly and ill-tempered. Though Margaret always treated him with respect as eldest of the family and loved him as her own son, he was always ready to think that the other two were being treated better than he, though in his heart he knew better. It was through the patient tenderness and forbearance, as well as the wise teaching of Margaret Bosco, that this most trying of her children grew up later into a good and upright man.
Little John was by far the most intelligent of the three, and though full of life and vigor, the most responsive to her teaching. He loved to help his mother in her charitable actions; when she went to visit a sick neighbor he went with her, and while she attended to the invalid, he would gather the children around him and teach them their prayers. Wherever he was he was the leader, in games as in everything else, and even as a child of five he used his influence for good. Sometimes his mother would object to his choosing the roughest boys to play with, especially when he came home rather the worse for wear. John would coax her—“You see, Mother, when I play with them, they are not so nasty, they don’t fight and use bad words.” It was quite true. There was a radiant purity about the child that influenced all with whom he came in contact. Through all the earlier years of his life, little John herded the cattle. He led them out joyously into the meadow, singing one of the hymns to Our Lady that his mother had taught him. The silence and beauty of the open country led his thoughts to God; he became a lover of silence and prayer. The little shepherds of the neighborhood, with whom he was very popular, sometimes interrupted him, and he would tell them a story or repeat part of the last catechism lesson of his mother. And he had such a delightful way of doing it that they came again and again. Among them was a poor little fellow who had only a hunk of black bread for his breakfast. “I’d like your bread better than mine,” said John one day. “Will you trade?” He had a large slice of good white bread such as Margaret always provided for her children; little Matteo was ready enough to trade, but he thought John had very strange likings. The exchange continued daily, and it was only after many years that it struck Matteo that liking had not had much to do with it.