St. John Bosco spent three years studying at the Convitto Ecclesiastico, where 45 young priests were trained to become “priests of the time and of the society in which they would have to live and work”. The young priests attended morning and evening conferences, and exercised ministry during the day in different places such as hospitals, prisons and charitable institutions.
The rector of the Convitto was Father Louis Guala, a theologian. He was assisted by St. Joseph Cafasso, who became the confessor and spiritual director of St. John Bosco. Don Cafasso often said: “Become saints! The priesthood! What exalted dignity in this world, but also how great the obligations it imposes and the virtues it demands. A priest may be considered as holy by men, and yet not by God. A third of the virtues necessary for a priest can make him appear holy in the sight of men, but not before God, who knows the secrets of men’s hearts. One who is truly a priest will easily go to heaven after death; but if he is not fully a priest, it is far more likely that he will go to hell, than to purgatory.”
Don Cafasso encouraged Don Bosco to go and to look around Turin. Don Bosco saw poor and abandoned youth on the streets. Don Cafasso also took Don Bosco to visit prisons, where he saw a great number of boys. Don Bosco said, “Who knows, if these boys were to find a friend outside who had taken loving care of them by helping them and by teaching them religion on holy days, perhaps they would have kept away from wrong doing and disaster, and thus would have avoided coming and returning to these prisons. Certainly, the number of these young prisoners would be diminished. Would it not be highly beneficial both for religion and civil society to undertake such an experiment for the future advantage of countless other youngsters?”
Don Bosco desired to establish a centre where abandoned youth could find a friend and ex-prisoners could find help and support. The project of Don Bsoco began on December 8, 1841. It was the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Don Bosco was vesting for Mass in the sacristy. The sacristan asked a young boy, Bartholomew Garelli, to serve Mass. Bartholomew replied that he didn’t know how to serve Mass. The sacristan got angry and began to beat Bartholomew. Don Bosco rebuked the sacristan and commanded him to bring Bartholomew to himself. Don Bosco kindly invited Bartholomew to stay for Mass, and after Mass Don Bosco asked the boy a few questions. He found out that Bartholomew was a sixteen years old orphan who didn’t know how to read and write. Bartholomew had not received first Communion yet and he was ashamed to attend catechism class with smaller boys. Don Bosco offered to teach Bartholomew catechism privately and they started the first lesson immediately. Don Bosco knelt down and prayed a Hail Mary. Rising Don Bosco made the Sign of the Cross but Bartholomew did not know how to make it. Hence, the first lesson was about the Sign of the Cross. At the end of the lesson, Don Bosco invited Bartholomew to return the following Sunday and to bring some of his companions.
The following Sunday, six boys led by Bartholomew and two boys introduced by Don Cafasso came to Don Bosco for catechism class. Other boys soon joined and the group was getting bigger each week. Don Bosco always invited them to bring as many friends as they could. Don Bosco emphasized the importance of Sunday Mass, morning and night prayers. He also diligently prepared the boys for making good confession.