Don Bosco's visit to Feltham young offenders institution Sunday January 13th 2013
Turin in 1841 had a population of 117,000, a number which was to triple within the next decade. The building of the city required labour and it came in all shapes and sizes from the surrounding rural area already devastated by war and famine. Many of these new arrivals were young; from eight or nine years old they arrived in Turin and began to work as casual workers as builders, pavement layers, tanners and general slaves to their often unscrupulous masters. They would gather each day at a place calle Porta Palazzo to be hired or ignored. If they were not hired these mainly teenage lads had to learn to live by their wits on the streets and the outcome was often prison.
Don Bosco as a young priest was asked to visit the prisons by his mentor Fr Joseph Cafasso who later became the patron saint of prisons. It was of these visits that Don Bosco wrote:
To see so many lads from the age of 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy and strong, intelligent, insect bitten and lacking any personal or spiritual support was something that horrified me. On release they often returned within a few days for another long sentence.
Don Bosco also had the task of attending public executions of some of these young lads. The gallows were not far away from his home and he recorded that this experience broke his heart and left him traumatised to the point that Fr Cafasso asked him not to attend any more. Don Bosco's reaction to this trauma was typical of his personality. He said:
I must by any available means prevent these lads from getting into this situation and offer them the hope of a better life.
It was in this situation that Don Bosco approached the minister of Justice and asked for permission to take the boys out of the prison for a day in the country. The minister eventually accepted because he believed that Don Bosco would disgrace himself as a naïve do-gooder. In fact Don Bosco ran the full day out and returned with all the inmates in the evening and no prison officers accompanied them. They had of course underestimated the strength of positive relationship that Don Bosco had established with the lads.
Since that time Salesians have been involved in prison ministry across the world. Even in this country Salesians have been involved in prison ministry in Feltham and in the north of England. At a world level a new Salesian project opened in Krishnagar within the state prison providing training in electronics and resistant materials for young prisoners. The need for support for young people in prison and for after-care continues around the world and whilst Salesians in the U|K are involved largely in parish and education work they always have a real concern for those who seem to be abandoned and at risk.
Fr. David O'Malley SDB
Don Bosco 1815-1888 patron saint of youth
Largest youth organisation in the catholic church