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The Salesian Society, founded by Saint John Bosco, takes its distinctive name from its patron, Saint Francis de Sales. The object for which it was founded may be best seen from the opening words of its constitution: "the Christian perfection of its associates obtained by the exercise of spiritual and corporal works of charity towards the young, especially the poor, and the education of boys to the priesthood." The cradle of the institute may truthfully be said to have been the fields of Valdocco, at that time a suburb but now an integral part of the city of Turin. In the first half of the nineteenth century Italy had not recovered from the disastrous consequences of the false and atheistical philosophical teachings brought into the country at the time of the French Revolution. For this reason education, morality, and religion were then at their lowest ebb. To save the rising generation the Salesian Society was founded. In 1844 Don Bosco began to gather together poor and neglected boys. He found places for them to play in, taught them Catechism and heard their confessions in the open air, afterwards taking them to one of the churches in the city, where he used to say Mass for them and give them holy Communion. These gatherings, called "Festive Oratories", became one of the most important and useful works of the institute in attracting boys. In 1845 the first night-school was opened at Valdocco, and became a permanent institution in the course of a year. It proved such a success that a second one was opened (1847) at Porto Nuovo, and a third at Vanchiglia (1849). In the beginning Don Bosco, for lack of personnel, was forced to make use of the older and more advanced pupils, setting them as teachers and monitors over the others, but necessity soon forced him to form a regular and permanent trained staff. Many of his boys, too, began to develop vocations for the priesthood, and became clerics, while still continuing to assist in the work of education. Much opposition was made to the growing institute, but Mgr. Franzoni, then Archbishop of Turin, took it under his protection, and even the king, Charles Albert, who had heard of Don Bosco's work, became its patron, and it steadily grew. It was, however, found impossible, in many cases, to make a permanent impression on the character of the boys during the short time that they were under the influence of the teachers at the festive oratories and the night-schools. A very large number of the boys had not only to earn their living, but had to learn a trade beforehand to enable them to do so. Thus a new class of boys arose — the boy-artisans — which constituted the second division of good works in the rising institute.
In 1852 the Church of Saint Francis de Sales was completed and consecrated, and surrounding it large schools for the students and workshops for boy-artisans began to rise. During all this time the work was developing, and a and of devoted and efficient teachers slowly emerged from the chaos of evolution. About this time Don Bosco was urged to consolidate and perpetuate his work by forming a religious congregation, and in 1857 he drew up its first set of rules. In the following year he went to Rome to seek the advice and support of his benefactor, Pius IX, and in 1859 he summoned the first chapter of the congregation, and began the Society of Saint Francis de Sales. In 1863 and 1864 colleges were opened at Mirabello, Monferrato, and Lanzo. This was a new step, as hitherto the scope of the congregation had been almost entirely restricted to the poor. In 1874 the Rule and Constitutions of the Society were definitively approved by Pius IX, and the Salesian Society took its place among the orders of the Church. The development of the order was very rapid; the first Salesian house outside of Italy was opened at Nice in 1875. In the same year, the first band of Salesian missionaries was sent to South America, and houses were founded in Argentina and Buenos Ayres. In 1876 the Salesian co-operators were organized for the purpose of assisting in the good works of the congregation. They were enriched with many indulgences by Pius IX. The Figli di Maria Ausiliatrice, or the Sons of Mary, Help of Christians, were founded to assist tardy vocations to the priesthood. In 1877 the "Salesian Bulletin", the official organ of the congregation, made its first appearance, its object being to inform the Catholic world of the good works undertaken by the institute and to beg help to support them. The "Bulletin" is now printed in eight different languages.
In 1877 houses were opened in Spezia, Almagro, and Montevideo. In 1879 missionaries were sent to Patagonia, and houses were opened at Navarre, Marseilles, and Saint-Cyr (France). In 1880 the first house in Spain was opened at Utera, and in South America the mission at Viedma, capital of the Rio Negro, was established. In 1883 the first house in Brazil was opened at Nichteroy, and missions were established at Terra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. In 1887 the first house was opened in Austria at Trent, and in the same year the Salesians established themselves at Battersea in London, England, and a large band of missionaries was sent to Ecuador. On 31 January, 1886, to the great grief of the congregation, Don Bosco died at the age of seventy-two. His successor, Don Rua, continued and developed the work of the congregation, and many more houses were opened in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and South America. In 1889 houses were established in the Holy Land and in Africa. Between 1894 and 1911 houses have been founded in Mexico, Tunis, Venezuela, Patagonia, Lisbon, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Montpelier, Cape Town, England, Chili, San Salvador, Peru, India, and China. The first mission opened in the United States was at San Francisco in 1898. there are now two in that city, and another at Oakland on the other side of the bay. In New York there were two missions opened respectively in 1898 and 1902. A college was opened at Troy in 1903, but transferred (1908) to Hawthorne, Westchester County, in the State of New York.
Although the real object of the Salesian Society is the Christian education of the young, especially of the poorer and middle classes, it does not refuse any work of charity for which it has suitable members. In carrying out its principal work, instead of the old punitive or repressive system, it adopts the preventive one, thus promoting confidence and love among the children, instead of fear and hatred. The success of this method is seen from the number of vocations drawn from its ranks. The young aspirants are imbued with the Salesian spirit even before joining the congregation. One year is spent in the novitiate, after which triennial vows are taken before the tyro is admitted to his final profession. The growth of the congregation may be seen from the fact that it contains about 320 houses, distributed into 34 provinicalates, of which 18 are in Europe, and the remaining 16 in America. The houses in Asia and Africa belong to European provinces. There has been no diminution except in France, where most of the houses were suppressed during the regime of persecution under Combes. The houses in Portugal were left untouched during the late change in government. In 1910 the second father general of the congregation died, and was succeeded by Don Albera. The main work of the institute is the education and training of boys divided into two classes, students and artisans. The second branch is the missionary one, and it finds its scope principally in South America and Asia. The third branch is engaged in the education of adults for the priesthood and the fourth is occupied in the diffusion of good Catholic literature. The order obtains its support largely from the generosity of the Salesian co-operators, who, as a third order, contribute largely for this purpose, and to whom the "Salesian Bulletin" is sent monthly, to keep them informed on the progress of the work in distant lands, and to urge them to greater generosity.
HEIMBUCHER, Die Orden u. Kongregationen, III (Paderborn, 1908), 491 sqq.; Lives of Don Bosco by LEMOYNE, FRANCESIA, D'ESPINEY; BONETTI, I Cinque Lustri; The Salesian Bulletin.