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St. Bernard: The man and not the dogs

No doubt, when most people hear the name “St. Bernard” they think of the breed of dogs. Yet there is a man behind the name, a man who never saw a St. Bernard dog because they were bred over 600 years after he died. First some information about the dogs, then the man, and then the connection between the two.

The St. Bernard breed comes from the Swiss Alps and was originally a farm dog. A number of different farm dog breeds were used in the Swiss Alps due to the rural nature of that region. At some point the one particular breed of farm dog became associated with a group of monks who lived at the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland. The earliest written record of that type of dog being used to help rescue people dates to 1707.

So, St. Bernards originate in the St. Bernard region (consisting of Greater St. Bernard Pass and Smaller St. Bernard Pass) of Switzerland. The Greater St. Bernard Pass is the most ancient pass through the western Alps, even though it was at an altitude of 8000 feet. Julius Caesar wanted to capture and control the pass and sent one of his generals to accomplish the deed; he failed. Augustus Caesar attempted to capture the pass and was successful. Indeed, a Roman road still exists at the Pass, although it is not used commercially. Much later, in 1800, Napoleon passed through the Greater St. Bernard Pass with 40,000 soldiers plus cannons.

But why did people need rescuing? Because of the treacherous nature of the Pass. During the Middle Ages many travelers passed through the Greater St. Bernard Pass on their way back-and-forth from northern France and western Germany to Rome. In 962 a hospice (place to eat and sleep) was built at the pass. Later on another hospice was built at Smaller St. Bernard Pass. Both hospices at were founded by a Benedictine monk. And the monk’s name? Bernard of Menthon.

Bernard (923-1008) was born into a wealthy family of nobility in Savoy, in present-day eastern France. He decided not to marry, instead he became a monk. He also became an ordained priest and was made Archdeacon of Aosta (in Italy) in 966. After noticing that the people of the Alps lacked a knowledge of Christianity, he decided to devote himself to reaching those people. For forty-two years, until his death, he worked among the people of the Alps.

Bernard noticed that a large number of French and German Catholics used a certain pass through the Alps on their way to Rome. This was dangerous since the Pass was snowed in during most of the year. (Today the road through the pass is only open from June through September.) He decided to construct a building where travelers could stay as they made their pilgrimage through the Pass. In 962 the hospice was built. Hospices had been located there in the past, one was mentioned from around the year 820, but by the time of Bernard the hospices had been destroyed.

Bernard himself died ministering to the people of the Alps. Today a statue of St. Bernard stands at Smaller St. Bernard Pass. The hospice (hotel now) at Greater St. Bernard Pass and a monastery are still there.

The Greater St. Bernard Tunnel was built in 1964, which caused most of the traffic to divert from the Pass itself. So the area round both the Passes are now used mainly for recreation. And a group of about forty monks, known as the Congregation of Canons of the Great Saint Bernard, live at the monastery at Greater St. Bernard Pass.

©2009 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved