In dealing with the special character of the Salesian work in Great Britain one has to be aware, as was Don Rua, that to implant the Salesian life and work here meant encountering a totally different culture and tradition to that of the Latin and largely Catholic culture of Italy, Spain or South America. England saw itself as Protestant and the predominant world power in the late 19th century. Almost as a corollary it saw Catholicism and Italian culture as both foreign and inferior. Cardinal Cagliero recounted that it was easier to engage with the Indians of Patagonia than with the street boys of Battersea who stoned this strange foreign cleric dressed in a long black robe when he came for the opening of the Sacred Heart Church in 1893.
Among the English Catholic community, the Salesians were late arrivals. They lacked the aristocratic credentials of the older religious orders in England like the Benedictines who could trace their lineage back to St Augustine of Canterbury and the Conversion of England, or the heroic martyr tradition of the English Jesuits with their famous public schools that had prepared the Catholic elite for 300 years. The older orders were different from the Salesians not only in their traditions but also because of their superb educational preparation in terms of university studies and historic libraries. Likewise, the diocesan clergy with their famous colleges, such as Ushaw, St Edmund’s Ware and Oscott, had a university style preparation which, with a few notable exceptions, the English Salesians could not match until after the 2nd Vatican Council.
Having said all that, it is clear that over the 100 years of their work in the English Province the Salesians have always educated the children of the urban Catholic poor in their schools with practically none of the resources of money or highly educated manpower available to other orders. They have also, at various times and in different geographical contexts, tried with varied degrees of success to work for children in difficulty: homeless orphans, juvenile delinquents, and disaffected youth.
One of the most significant features has been the undoubted contribution that the Province has made to the Salesian Missions in Africa, (South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Liberia) India, China and South America. Don Bosco's original dream of England supplying English-speaking missionaries for the world was, to some degree, realised.
In terms of pastoral work the Salesians in Great Britain have not been able to import the classic Salesian institutions, the Oratory (youth club/youth parish) or the Trade School, (except in Malta and Cape Town). Instead they focussed on trying to provide Catholic secondary schools (day and boarding) for the aspiring working class and homes/hostels/residential schools for children at risk. They have also worked in parishes, both our own and at the service of the diocesan parishes nearby and as military chaplains.