Don Bosco's Mysterious Dog
I believe in my guardian angel. If you asked me to draw a picture of him, he would probably appear typically angelic: white garment, magnificent wings, and a noble countenance. I certainly would not depict him as a savage dog with gray fur! I would only do that if I were St. John Bosco.
Who was St. John Bosco?
St. John Bosco (1815-1888), familiarly known as Don Bosco, was born into a poor farming family in northern Italy. His father died when he was young, leaving the mother, Margarita, to raise her three boys alone. When John felt called to the priesthood, his elder brother Antonio objected, saying John was a farmer, “just like us!” Nonetheless, persevering through many difficulties, he was ordained in 1841.
Don Bosco's first assignment was in Turin, where the population suffered many of the effects of industrialization and urbanization. The sight of so many disadvantaged youth walking the streets aimlessly moved him to pity. To prevent them from turning to crime, he decided to spend his life for their betterment. He established schools, apprenticeship programs, and eventually a religious congregation known as the Salesians, to carry on the work. His teaching methods emphasized love rather than punishment, a method known as the Salesian Preventive System.
Grigio’s First Appearance
One evening in 1852, Don Bosco was crossing late through a rough section of Turin, known as the Valdocco. He traveled cautiously as he had been attacked more than once. There were many anti-clerical factions in Italy at that time. Suddenly a huge gray dog trotted up to him. He was startled at first, but as the dog showed signs of friendliness, Don Bosco let him walk along with him. When they arrived at the gate of his home, known as the Oratory, the dog trotted away. This same scenario occurred every time he had to walk home late. The dog would appear out of nowhere, accompany Don Bosco to his home, and then disappear. He named the dog Grigio, (GREE-jo), “the gray one.”
“Is he a Ghost?”
One time, as Don Bosco made this nightly trek, he met a good friend who accompanied him for a few blocks. When the time came for them to go separately, Grigio arrived on the scene. Don Bosco’s friend was terrified and started yelling at Grigio. “Don’t worry,” said Don Bosco “Grigio is my friend.” The man was not convinced and threw a couple stones at him, but Grigio didn’t show the least reaction. “It can’t be a real dog!” said his friend, “It’s a ghost!”
The man was so perplexed that he decided to walk all the way to the Oratory. Once there, Grigio vanished. “What is this?” his friend asked, “Where did he go? Was he a real dog?!” The man was so frightened, that two students of the Oratory had to accompany the man home.
Grigio the Bodyguard
Don Bosco eventually discovered Grigio’s true worth. He explains, “Around the end of November of 1854, one dark, rainy night, I was returning home from the city…At a certain point I realized that two men were walking a short distance in front of me. When I quickened my steps, they quickened theirs; when I slowed down, they slowed down. I then tried to retrace my steps but it was too late; suddenly, taking two leaps towards me, they quietly threw a dark cloak over my face. I struggled to free myself, but it was useless. One was trying to gag me. I tried to shout, but in vain.”
Suddenly, there was a terrific howl. Grigio appeared and leaped on the man holding the cloak, forcing him to let go. He then bit the second one and brought him to the muddy ground. When the first man tried to escape, Grigio went after him and likewise rolled him into the mud. He stood over him, growling ferociously.
“Call off your dog!” they shouted, “Call off your dog!” “I’ll call him off if you allow me to go my way in peace.” “Yes, yes,” they said, “but call him off!” As soon as Don Bosco said, “Come, Grigio,” the dog obediently trotted over and walked the remainder of the way with him.
Grigio’s Outward Appearance
If Grigio was indeed an angel, he disguised himself very well. One of the students at the Oratory, Carlo Tomatis, described him in this way: “It had a truly frightening appearance. Every time she saw it, Mama Margarita would unfailingly say, ‘Oh, what an ugly beast!’ It looked like a wolf, with a long snout, erect pointed ears, and gray fur. It was over three feet tall.”
One night as Don Bosco made his way home, a man behind an elm tree fired a gun at him twice. Having missed the mark, the shooter came out and flung himself on Don Bosco. At that very moment, Grigio appeared and sprang on the assailant. After giving him a savage growl, the man ran off petrified.
On another occasion, Don Bosco heard someone running behind him. He looked back and saw a man coming at him with an uplifted club. Don Bosco started to run and reached a slope in the road where several more men were waiting for him at the bottom. He switched directions and punched his pursuant in the stomach. As the man doubled over in pain, his fellow henchmen came running with clubs in their hands. When the thugs surrounded Don Bosco, Grigio appeared with a blood-curdling howl. He circled round and round his master, revealing his ferocious smile. As the gang dispersed like flies, Grigio accompanied Don Bosco home to safety.
“John, please don’t go out,” urged Mama Margarita, “you know how dangerous it is after dark.” Nonetheless, Don Bosco had to attend to an urgent matter. He reassured his mother, saying he would take some of the students to walk with him. As they went out, who should they find stretched out in front of the gate? Grigio, the faithful. The gatekeeper tried shooing him away, to no avail.
“Oh, it’s you Grigio,” Don Bosco exclaimed, “Fine. The more the merrier. Come along; let’s go.” Curiously, Grigio refused to budge, and even growled at Don Bosco. One of the boys gently kicked the dog, and Grigio let out a terrifying bark. When Don Bosco tried to slip past him, the dog stood up and prevented him. Upon seeing this, Mama Margarita told her son, “Don’t go out John; if you won’t listen to me, at least listen to that dog; he has more sense than you have.” About fifteen minutes later, a neighbor came to the Oratory and said that three or four dangerous men were lurking in the neighborhood. Once again, Grigio spared Don Bosco’s life.
Grigio’s Last Appearance
Grigio accompanied Don Bosco for so many years that one person considered it impossible for a dog to live that long. Don Bosco responded with a twinkle, “Maybe he is the son or the grandson of the first one.” All the same, some years passed with Grigio out of sight. Was he possibly dead?
One evening, Don Bosco visited an old friend, Luis Moglia, who lived out in the country. As usual, he traveled with some trepidation in the dark. He remembered that one of the vineyards had two savage guard dogs. “I wish I had Grigio here,” he thought to himself. As if his desire produced him, Grigio appeared and ran with delight to Don Bosco. They walked together like old friends. Suddenly, the two guard dogs came charging out at them, but with a superior menace, Grigio sent them back like frightened bunny rabbits.
When Don Bosco reached his friend’s house, all were astonished at such a magnificent dog. They sat down to eat, with Grigio lying beside them. Don Bosco arose midway through the meal to offer Grigio some food, but he had vanished. Since the Moglia’s had closed all the windows and doors, Grigio’s disappearance remained a mystery.
An Angel in Wolf’s Clothing?
Angels are pure spirits and so have no bodily form, despite Fra Angelico’s masterful depictions. Even so, angels often appear in the Bible in the guise of a human body, such as when the Archangel Raphael assisted Tobias. (Tob 3:17) Sometimes, God assigns animals to help his servants, as when the ravens fed Elijah in the wilderness. (1 Kings 17:3-6) Likewise, Balaam’s donkey not only saw an angel but also spoke like a human. (Num 22:28)
St. John Bosco received a very special mission from God to help the youth. The congregation he founded, the Salesians, now number over 15,000 priests. They primarily run schools that provide technical, vocational, and language instruction, all over the world, as well as shelters for homeless persons.
This good priest’s life was spared innumerable times by an intelligent dog who apparently never ate, drank, or aged. Grigio would appear mysteriously at the very moment of danger, and disappear just as quickly. May he have been Don Bosco’s guardian angel in a furry disguise?
What was Grigio?
The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco, Vol IV, by Giovanni Lemoyne, S.D.B.Salesiana Publishers, 1967
Saint John Bosco: The Friend of the Youth, by F.A. Forbes,
Salesiana Publishers, 1941
This biography of St. John Bosco is in the public domain.
© 2018 Bede