St. John Bosco’s efforts to help the poor and teach kids trades were politically controversial, as well as threatening the livelihood of bandits and crime families in the Turin area. He also walked around in slums a lot, at sketchy hours, visiting sketchy people. So there were many occasions during his work when he was in physical danger of getting murdered or kidnapped.
And for those times, the Lord sent him a mysterious protector — a wolfish-looking gray dog who seemed to arrive from nowhere whenever needed and could vanish in a moment without anyone seeing him go. He seemed to smell out trouble in advance and know the plans of bad guys, accepted petting from friends but never accepted food from anyone, and over the course of more than thirty years, never seemed to sleep or age. He saved Bosco’s life on three occasions. He once vanished from a locked room. And after people stopped trying to kill Don Bosco, the dog never showed up again, except for once in the middle of a lonely stretch of nowhere when Bosco wished he had Il Grigio back to keep him company.
Don Bosco called him “the gray one” — “El Gris” in his native Piedmontese, or in Italian, “Il Grigio.” His friends suspected that Il Grigio was not just a helpful stray dog, but a guardian angel appearing in canine form.
But Il Grigio apparently didn’t end his work there.
In 1959, Blessed Pope John XXIII had St. John Bosco’s casket and remains brought to Rome to be venerated. On the way back from Rome, the Salesians made a stop at La Spezia. The idea was that the Brothers could venerate their founder on the down-low, and word was sent to wait for the van carrying the casket. This being a neighborhood in Italy, of course people found out that something was up. Soon townspeople were waiting alongside the Brothers.
And that was when a wolfish-looking gray dog showed up. One of the brothers got a stick and tried to drive him away from the main waiting area. (Some Italian street dogs are dangerous, to be fair.) The dog showed up again on another street corner, and approached a more dog-loving Brother, who petted him. The van arrived — and the dog began accompanying the casket wherever it went, as if assigned as an honor guard. Despite efforts to keep him out, the dog not only got into church, but seated himself directly under the casket and refused to move. He also prevented unauthorized people from touching the casket with his fierce growls.
At this point, people started to wonder about the dog, and the dog-loving Brother joked that it was Il Grigio. So they let the dog sit under the casket. The dog sat there patiently all day, quiet as a mouse, contented to have cloth drawn around the casket table to conceal the floor (and him) from view. When the Brothers were asked by mothers to lift up their babies and let them touch the casket, the dog did not growl or do anything aggressive.
When the viewing of the casket ended, he played with the schoolboys and some of the younger brothers. Then the dog followed the Brothers to their luncheon, but refused all food, just sitting in a corner. After lunch, he went away, and was later found in the church when it was unlocked, guarding the casket again. How did he get in? Nobody knew.
Then he followed the casket again as it went back into the van, waiting while the van waited. When the van drove away, he followed it through the streets until the third turn… at which point he mysteriously vanished.
And here is a photograph of this 1959 version of Il Grigio, hanging out by the van. You can see him in the bottom right corner, curled up in a ball. Was he the same dog or angel? Who knows? Certainly his appearance was fitting, whatever it meant.
Brother Renato Celato, who petted this new Il Grigio in 1959. This was my source for the 1959 Il Grigio photos.
Don Tiburzio Lupo’s account of the 1959 incident (in Italian).
One final note: In some of his papers, Tolkien said that Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor who guarded Luthien and helped Beren, was actually an example of how “many of the Maiar” would “robe themselves… like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.” Huan at one point disguised himself as a werewolf to help Luthien sneak into Melkor’s stronghold. Nobody seems to have connected the story of Huan to the story of Il Grigio, but I think a Catholic guy like Tolkien could have gotten some ideas from Il Grigio!