Coronavirus and Don Bosco

By Fr. Antoine Farrugia, SDB (Malta Province)

It may seem a bit of a stretch to link this corona virus to our Salesian history, but it is actually quite easy.


In 1854, cholera broke out in northern Italy, and in the summer of 1854 there were over 3,000 cases in Genoa, not far from Turin. Cholera was a feared disease with a 60% death rate and created panic across the region. The first deaths in Turin occurred on July 30 of that year, and Turin went into a state of major emergency. The source of the outbreak was close to Don Bosco’s oratory in Valdocco, but very soon the whole city was infected.

Don Bosco took precautions in the Oratory and school:
· he opened up windows
· he instituted regular cleaning regimes of all areas
· in the dormitories he opened up the spaces between the beds
· he set up a regular pattern of hand washing
· he began a pattern of regular prayer for the victims and those who were caring for them

At the end of the first week, the local government made an appeal for “first aiders” who could deal with the thousands of emerging cases of sick people. The problem was that cholera is a messy disease involving fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. People needed to be kept clean and given plenty of clean water to survive. The onset could be sudden; people were collapsing in the street. It was a mess to deal with—a disgusting mess.

Don Bosco took action.

On August 5 Don Bosco spoke to his older pupils and said that he would go and help as a first-aider in the city. Immediately 14 pupils offered to help him. The next day another 30 volunteered. Don Bosco organized three groups:
– one to support work in the hospitals
– one to visit self-isolated patients
– one to search the streets for sick people or abandoned bodies.

Each of these teams worked in pairs and wore masks. Each pupil carried a bottle of vinegar to wash his hands before and after touching an infected person. If they ran out of vinegar, they had to return to the Oratory immediately. The pupils also provided fresh linen to victims and burnt the old linen. Bed sheets became so scarce that Mama Margaret stripped the altar cloths from the church to provide clean sheets for the sick.

So, there in the Salesian history is a model of how we might think about our own epidemic:

  • Ensuring enough space between people to reduce cross-contamination
    · Regular cleaning of public spaces
    · Encouraging handwashing, especially educating our children to this
    · Starting a regular pattern of prayer for those who put themselves at risk in dealing with the corona virus.

Now for a prayer:
Lord Jesus, you traveled through towns and villages curing every disease and illness.
At your command, the sick were made well.
Come to our help now, as we face the global spread of the corona virus, that we may all experience your healing love.
Heal those who are sick with the virus.
May they regain their strength and health through quality medical care.
Keep our doctors and nurses safe and heal us from our fear, which prevents nations from working together and neighbors from helping one another.
Heal us from our pride, and help us to recognize our weakness as we work together against a disease that knows no borders.

(thanks to Fr. Dave O’Malley)

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