ROME – Devotees of St. John Bosco, the legendary 19th century Italian pastor who founded the Salesian religious order, are expressing shock and outrage over the theft of a reliquary from a church dedicated to his memory in northern Italy that contained a small piece of the saint’s brain.

“The news of the theft of a reliquary of St. John Bosco from the church of Castelnuovo is one of those things you never wanted to hear,” said Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin, Bosco’s hometown.

“It makes you think of the profound moral misery of someone who would steal a ‘sign’ that’s been left and conserved for the devotion and the faith of all,” he said.

Nosiglia called for the immediate return of the reliquary.

“I invite who took it to give it back immediately, without conditions,” he said, “so we can turn this painful page and continue worthily to honor the memory of Don Bosco in his birthplace.”

The reliquary had been preserved in a small room towards the back of the massive basilica of Castelnuovo, situated on a hill overlooking Bosco’s birthplace, located behind the main altar. It was apparently taken on Saturday evening, between a visit to the reliquary by a group of pilgrims from Lombardy, and a customary check by members of the Salesian order prior to closing the church for the evening.

Bosco was born in Castelnuovo in 1815, and the basilica in his honor was consecrated in 1984.

Local police have blocked off the area of the theft, and are reportedly checking for fingerprints and also reviewing video footage of both the church and the surrounding area at the time of the theft. For the moment, the Salesians have put up a sign saying “shrine in preparation” on the space where the reliquary had been preserved behind an altar.

According to media reports, the basilica has experienced several small-scale thefts in recent weeks, but prior to Saturday night nothing of spiritual value had been taken.

Father Ezio Orsini, the rector of the basilica, said the community is “deeply saddened” over the theft.

“We trust that Don Bosco can touch the heart of whomever committed this act and make them turn around, just as he was able to transform the lives of the young people he met,” Orsini said. “We’re also sure that while you can steal a reliquary of Don Bosco, as has happened, you can’t rob Don Bosco from us and from all the pilgrims who visit this place every day.”

In the rapidly industrializing Turin of the early 19th century, St. John Bosco was famous for ministering to street children, juvenile offenders, and other disadvantaged youth. He was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934.

In 2015, Pope Francis travelled to Turin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bosco’s birth.

“I’m very grateful to the Salesians, for what they did for my family, who are very attached to them,” Francis said on that occasion, whose own family comes from northern Italy.

“My mother and father were married by a Salesian, a missionary in Patagonia who came from Lodi, who helped me a lot in my vocation,” he said.

The Salesian religious order founded by Bosco is today among the largest and most influential men’s communities in the Catholic Church, with more than 15,000 members worldwide. Bosco also founded a women’s order known as the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.