The Mother Behind St. John Bosco

When St. John Bosco was discerning the priesthood, he would sometimes ask his mother, Margaret, for her opinion about what he should do with his life. Her answer, as told in Peter Lappin’s book Stories of Don Bosco, was always the same:

“All I want from you, John, is that you save your immortal soul.”

Later, at his ordination, Margaret told her son: “From now on you must think only about saving souls. Never worry about me.”

While Don Bosco embarked on his priestly ministry, Margaret lived a happy life at the family farm, surrounded by her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and friends. Her husband had died when John was a boy, and she had worked very hard in the midst of poverty to raise her children by herself. Now, she was finally enjoying some of the fruits of her labors.

Then one day, Don Bosco came to her with a request. He had been working with poor boys who had no one else to care for them, and he needed help. A priest friend had advised him to ask his mother to come be his housekeeper, saying she would be “an angel of comfort” at his side. And though Don Bosco was reluctant to ask her to leave her home, he believed she would want to do the will of God.

“Would you be willing to come and live with me?” Don Bosco asked Margaret.

She replied that although she was very happy living in her own home with her family, she was ready to give it all up and go with her son, if it pleased the Lord.

Before long, Margaret was cooking and cleaning for several hundred boys, most of whom had never known the type of motherly love she showed them. Don Bosco brought them in off the streets and welcomed them into the Oratory he established for them, and Margaret gave everything she had to support her son and these boys in this work of love.

When money for this endeavor was scarce, she sold her family’s land. When that wasn’t enough, she sold her beloved wedding souvenirs and keepsakes.

“When I looked at those things which I was holding in my hand for the last time, at first I felt upset,” she said. “But afterward I felt so happy that if I’d had a hundred such things I’d have given them up for the same good purpose without the least regret.”

Eventually, Margaret gave away so much of what she owned for the sake of her son’s mission that she had only one dress, and it was in tatters. Every time Don Bosco gave her money for a new one, she would return with her arms full of clothes for the boys instead.

From the moment she woke up until far into the night, Margaret served Don Bosco and the boys. After long days spent cooking and cleaning, she would sit by the light of an old oil lamp, mending the boys’ clothes while they slept. Her son hired no other assistants, for not only could he not afford it, but even more, he wanted to protect the family atmosphere that was so essential to the way he was trying to help the boys.

Yet the boys, who came from rough backgrounds, could often be ungrateful, thoughtless, and even rude. After one particular incident where they carelessly trampled and ruined her lovingly tended vegetable garden, Margaret had had enough. Her heroic patience had come to an end. She threw down her apron.

“You keep telling me to be patient, that they’re only boys,” she said to Don Bosco in exasperation. “How can I be patient when they not only don’t appreciate what I do for them, but at times even work against me?” She rattled off a long list of their offenses. “John, I can’t hide it from you any longer. I can’t take any more. Let me go back home where I can end my days in peace.”

Don Bosco knew that everything his mother said was true. She had poured herself out for those boys, and they continued to expect more from her, often without appreciation.

            “You are so right, Mamma,” he told her. “But…”

            Instead of finishing his sentence, he pointed to the Crucifix hanging on the wall.

            Margaret looked at it for a few long moments, and then sighed, tied on her apron, and went back to work.

For years, day in and day out, Margaret toiled, filling the role of mother for the orphans.

“Never one to raise her voice,” Peter Lappin writes, “she still exercised enormous influence over the boys, relying rather on the two elements on which Don Bosco himself relied—reason and religion.”  

At last, in 1856, Margaret caught pneumonia, which was to be her final illness. Frail from years of hard work and poverty, she succumbed to the infection and prepared for death.

“There was a time when I helped you receive the Sacraments,” she said to her son. “Now it’s your turn to help me. Let’s recite together the prayers for the dying.”

And so, the son whom she had brought to receive baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation as a child, now prayed by her side as a priest as she entered eternal life.

Margaret Bosco was declared Venerable in 2006, reminding the world that behind the great, famous, and beloved St. John Bosco stood the sacrificial love of the humble mother who gave him life.

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Maura Roan McKeegan is an award-winning author of twelve Catholic children’s books. Her most recent titles include Julia Greeley, Secret Angel to the Poor (Magnificat-Ignatius Press), In This Catholic Church (OSV), Peter and Jesus by a Charcoal Fire (Emmaus Road), and Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press), co-authored with Scott Hahn. She is also a contributor for various magazines. She has a special interest in Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo and writes about him at her new Substack site, Stories of Don Dolindo ( can contact her at Maura.Roan.McKeegan(at)gmail(dot)com.

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