Margaret Occhiena, Don Bosco's mother 1856-2006: 150th anniversary of her death. The woman at the roots and origin of the Salesian Family.
Words of the Lord to Giovannino Bosco: I am the Son of Her whom your mother taught you to greet three times a day... Margaret Occhiena educated John under the watchful eye of God. She thus formed him to be intelligent, free and able to do all for Love of his neighbour.
Strong and humble, like the women of the Bible, she kept a watchful eye on her sons that God’s plan might be fulfilled in their lives. Educated by Margaret, little Johnny Bosco is now the great Saint John Bosco.
1. Biographical details MargaretOcchiena was born 1 April 1788, at Capriglio (Asti, Italy), and baptised that same day in her local parish church. At the age of 24 she married Francis Luigi Bosco, a widower with a son Anthony aged 4. Francis died of pneumonia five years later, on 12 May 1817, aged 33. A widow at 29, Margaret had to look after four people: Anthony (9 years old), Joseph Luigi and John Melchior, four and two years old, and her 65 year old invalid mother-in-law Margaret Zucca.
They were a humble family, on the threshold of poverty. They managed through hard work, each one pulling their weight, fired with a sense of God’s Providence at all times. Don Bosco would always look to his home at “The Becchi” at Castelnuovo d'Asti, as a reference point. His saintly mother “Mamma Margaret” educated him to the faith, and protected him from the bullying of his older brother Anthony, who did not want him studying...It was in this house, guided by his mother, that John Bosco – like Christ at Nazareth – grew in age and grace.
2. John Bosco recalls : I was only two when my father died. Looking after us, my mother had to do both the house work and the work my father did in the fields. She was a strong woman… But working in the fields was very hard and she could not manage on her own. My brothers and I used to give her a hand...
It was in this room, when I was 9 years old, I had a dream... ...this dream stayed with me all my life !
It seemed I was near home, and the place was like a huge school playground There were many boys there, some of them swearing. I launched in with my fists. That’s when a Person appeared and told me: “Don’t use your fists. You’ll only win these boys over if you treat them nicely...” I was only nine years old... Who was asking me to do the impossible?
He replied: “I am the Son of Her whom your mother taught you to greet three times a day. Ask my Mother my Name.” Suddenly a very majestic looking Woman appeared. I was amazed... She called me over to herself and took me by the hand. I noticed all the boys had disappeared and in their place I saw all sorts of animals: dogs, cats, bears, wolves... “Make yourself humble, strong and robust...” she said. “And what you see happen to these animals, you will have to do with my sons.”
I looked around and saw that the wild animals had changed into gentle lambs... I didn’t understand anything... And I asked the Lady to explain it to me...
She told me: You will understand everything in due course. When I told my dream next morning, my mother mused: Who knows? Maybe you’ll become a shepherd of souls.
The family kitchen Here many conversations, and much sharing took place
The kitchen was the real heart of our house... Here I learnt the meaning of charity... patience... Generosity with strangers and foreigners who knocked at the door looking for food... And... Christ was practically one of the family and my mother, Margaret, made me learn some Bible passages off by heart... We weren’t able to go to catechism school, and so she herself taught us our faith.
Here, in this place, I began to have a simple but deep relationship with God In my family I learnt to respect and have trust in God... ...the all powerful, but also the God of “every day”, part of my ordinary life
3. Margaret kept an eye on her little, intelligent, alert John and gave him his freedom. She made him think and live in the Presence of God: “remember that God sees you”
Outdoors one lovely starry night, Margaret told the boys: “It is God who created the world and put so many stars up there.” In the middle of a field full of flowers she exclaimed: “What lovely things the Lord has made for us!” And at harvest: “Thank the Lord. He has been so good to us; he has given us our daily bread.” Life is tough, and Mamma Margaret knows it from her own experience. She prepares her sons to face and understand their difficulties and sufferings. After hailstones ruined their crops, she mused aloud: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken it away. He knows why.”
Catechist for her children Easter 1826, the day of John’s First Communion. Margaret prepared her sons for Confession and the feastday Mass and taught them to trust in God. She then continued her lesson with the youngest lad in these words: “My little Johnny, God has a great gift for you. Prepare yourself well… This is a great day for you. God has taken possession of your heart. Now promise me you will do all you can to remain good to the end of your life.” And God took possession of his heart in such a way that he then called him to a special vocation: to be a priest for young people.
Advice for the young John Boscofrom his mother: At the age of 19 John wanted to become a Franciscan friar. Told about this, the parish priest of Castelnuovo, Fr Dassano, warned Mamma Margaret openly: “Make him forget this idea. You are not rich and you are getting on in years. If your son joins the monastery, how will he help you in your old age?” Mamma Margaret wrapped her black shawl around her, headed for Chieri and spoke to John: “The parish priest told me you want to enter the monastery. Listen to me well. I want you to think about it very calmly. When you make your decision, follow your path without bothering about anyone else. The most important thing is that you do what God wants. The parish priest wanted me to get you to change your mind, because I might need your help in the future. But I tell you: In these things your mother counts for nothing. God comes first. I want nothing from you, I expect nothing. I was born poor, I have lived poor and I want to die poor. What’s more, I want to tell you this straightaway: if you were to become a priest and have the misfortune to become rich, I wouldn’t put a foot in your house. Make sure you keep this in mind.” John Bosco never forgot those strong words of his mother.
Words for John Bosco the priest • Turin, 5 June 1841. In the Archbishop’s chapel, through the laying on of hands by Monsignor Luigi Fransoni, John Bosco becomes the priest “Don Bosco”. The evening of his first Mass in his home place, alone with her son, Mamma Margaret made some recommendations:”Now you are a priest, you are nearer to Christ. I haven’t read any of the books you’ve read, but remember that to begin to say Mass means to begin to suffer. Maybe you will not be aware of this immediately. But little by little you will see that your mother has told you the truth. From now on think only of the salvation of souls and do not be concerned about me.”
5. Seeing the state of children and young people on the streets of Turin, John Bosco realised he would have to show them the same parental love – both motherly and fatherly – that his own mother Margaret had shown him as a child and thoughout his entire life. Easter Sunday 12 April 1846, after a lot of work to get the place ready, VALDOCCO was born!
Autumn 1846. Mamma Margaret is 58 years old, Don Bosco 31. At The Becchi he has just recovered from near fatal exhaustion, brought on by the work of getting Valdocco up and running. He needs a trustworthy person to live with him at Valdocco, to help and advise him. Who better than his mother? Margaret was well settled into The Becchi, well known by everyone, and had her own piece of land, her relations, her country ways. She didn’t keep her son waiting for an answer: “If you think this will please the Lord, I am ready to go even straightaway.” Into her basket with her few belongings. Don Bosco took his breviary, a Missal and some books. And off with them to Turin, where on 3 November 1846 they reached Valdocco and began their mission among the youth. Several years later a Salesian brother Peter Enria reminded Don Bosco: “Do you remember how at night time when we were already in bed, you and your mother used to mend our torn shirts and trousers as they were the only ones we had!”
6. Mother to the Oratory In November 1846 Margaret arrived in Valdocco and never left it again. It was her greatest, most painful sacrifice. But God was calling her again, at her age, to be the mother of other orphans. In the period Mamma Margaret remained at the Oratory she prepared the meals, washed and mended the clothes of those poor young people. Already on in years, practically a grandmother, she carried on working and was “mother” at the Oratory for all those wild youngsters who turned to her for affection and motherly comfort.
7. A Model for all MARGARET OCCHIENA (1788-1856) - a full 68 years of life Welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Val d’ Aosta in summer 2006, the Rector Major Fr Pascual Chávez asked him to speed up the beatification of St John Bosco’s mother, Margaret Occhiena. The Rector gave him documentation and a letter from all the Salesian bishops throughout the world asking that the Decree on the heroicity of Mamma Margaret’s virtues be promulgated. The Salesian Family wishes Margaret Occhiena to be declared a model for all God’s People, the Church, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her death.
Her method of educating, in the spirit of a family, moves forward in history 1846: Valdocco begins! Mamma Margaret comes to live with her son and his boys. 1854: Don Bosco starts the Salesian Society, to give his works and spirit stability into the future. 1856: 25 November Mamma Margaret dies at Valdocco. 1864: Don Bosco lays first stone for the Mary Help of Christians Basilica. 1872: The Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians is born at Mornese with Mary Mazzarello, a country girl and, like Don Bosco’s mother, an educator toughened by life.
In Valdocco, Mornese.. in every Salesian house… Everyone can feel “at home”. Using games, prayers and catechism, I tried to give them all my mother taught me when I was a child. Bread, Love, Work, participation, friendship with God & neighbour, dreams Every boy coming into a Salesian house can find all this! “I’ve only one desire: that you be happy in time and in eternity.” (D.Bosco)
Don Bosco’s Family owes much to his mother Margaret Occhiena. She taught it the Preventive System: reason, religion, loving kindness - an educative System that is worldwide today: Salesians SDB: 16,943 Presences: 2,073 Countries: 129 Thousands of Cooperators. Salesian Sisters FMA: 15,308 Countries: 89 Presences: 1,259 Familiarity gives rise to affection, affection leads to confidence, and this opens hearts. Let us learn from Jesus, the Master of Familiarity. (D.Bosco, Letter from Rome, 1884)
Every 25 November we remember: Margaret Occhiena, Don Bosco's mother 1856-2006: 150th anniversary of her death. The Salesian Family requests her Beatification. Without her this Family and its method of educating would not exist.
Translated into English by Fr Patrick Egan SDB Salesian College, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, Ireland. The end...