Crossing the great wall of the Alps from France and Switzerland into northern Italy has always been necessary but never easy. Travelers through the Swiss Canton of Valais have for ages used the mountain pass called “Great St. Bernard”; those coming from France, the more southern pass of “Little St. Bernard”. These routes were arduous not only in the winter, but all year round, for the roads at their peak were, respectively, 8,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level, always snowbound, and especially in spring, subject to avalanches.
By now the reader of this sketch will probably have recognized that these mountain passes were evidently named after some St. Bernard, and that the ancient travelers’ hospices still functioning there have a connection with that particular saint. Today’s column will identify the man, one of several Bernards who have been canonized.
The Alpine Bernard was not the great Cistercian monk and theologian after whom St. Bernard’s Seminary and St. Bernard’s Institute in Rochester were named. That was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). His monastery of Clairvaux was in north-eastern France. The Bernard of the Alps is variously called St. Bernard of Menthon, St. Bernard of Mont-Joux (“Jove Mountain”), or St. Bernard of Aosta. The last title is probably the best to use.
Not much is known about Bernard’s origins or early history. It used to be held that he was born of a noble family at Menthon, in Savoy, but it is now agreed that he was born just south of the Alps in Italy. (Mont-Joux, or “Mons Jovis” is simply the name of the mountain crossed by the Great St. Bernard Pass.)
Whatever his background, Bernard studied for the priesthood and was ordained for the diocese of Aosta, in north-western Italy at the foot of the Alps. After many years of priestly work there, he was appointed vicar-general of his diocese. By disposition a very apostolic man, Father Bernard, as vicar-general, simply continued his tireless apostolic journeys around the plains and into the valleys of his diocesan terrain, and even beyond its boundaries throughout Piedmont, and into borderland France and Switzerland. He found many lingering pagan superstitions among the rural people. These he strove to correct. He also founded schools, restored clerical discipline, and saw to it that the churches were kept neat and clean.
One category of the faithful received his special attention. They were the Cisalpine travelers, mostly pilgrims from Germany and France, who had to brave the rigors of snow country when they crossed the Alps bound for Rome. The footsore travelers, when traversing the two main passes, sometimes lost their way and were frozen to death, or encountered an avalanche and were crushed. Even when they escaped, they were frequently victimized by mountain brigands.
Earlier benefactors had established rest areas at these two crucial points, but by Bernard’s time the refuges were no longer in service. Therefore, in 962, he secured sufficient funds to erect a new hospice and hospital on Jove Mountain. A few years later he put up still another one at the more southern pass. To insure that both houses would be supervised properly, he founded, with the permission of the pope, a religious order of Augustinian canons, called the Canons Regular of SS. Nicholas and Bernard of Montjoux. Never a large order (today they number about 70 members), these canons continue today to devote their attention to the needs of Alpine travelers and to the spiritual welfare of those who live in the nearby mountains. It is they who have long since bred the huge St. Bernard dogs that search out those lost in the snow. The story has it that these canines carry around their necks a small cask of brandy to help the half-frozen wayfarers avoid hypothermia.
St. Bernard of Aosta was noted for many other good deeds and miracles, but he is best remembered for this unique charity to travelers. After his death the two passes were renamed after him, “Grand St. Bernard” and “Petit St. Bernard.” It was an appropriate tribute.
–Father Robert F. McNamara