Saint Bernard of Montjoux, or Menthon domain

The iconic Saint Bernard dogs take their name from today’s saint, Saint Bernard of Menthon – also known as of Montjoux – an 11th century Burgundian priest from a noble family, who was born in about 1020, and died in 1081. He evangelized the then largely pagan regions of Aosta and Lombardy, with numerous conversions and miracles. As a young man, discerning his vocation, his father had arranged a marriage for him, a fate nearly impossible to avoid in those days. But, as the Gospel says, nothing is impossible for God, so Bernard jumped out of a window in the castle, and angels guided him gently to the ground 40 feet below.

Part of his mission in that wildly scenic and mountainous region was to set up a canonry and hostel for the spiritual and material care of pilgrims seeking a path over the Alps, on their way to Rome or the Holy Land. This was at 8000 feet above sea level, where the snow can get many feet deep, even in high summer. Pilgrims would regularly lose their way, and be in danger of freezing to death. So, at some point, perhaps well after Father Bernard’s time, the canons at the hostel trained the region’s now-iconic hardy and robust herding dogs to seek out and rescue them – I’m not sure if they had the small cask of brandy hanging from their collars, but, well, why not? (Even if alcohol does not help save you from hypothermia, and may often make things worse – but at least you might feel a bit warmer). The pass along the alps, as well as the dogs, by custom, were over time named after the saint.

After 42 years of ministry, Father Bernard went to his eternal reward in June of 1081, even if his customary feast on this 28th day of May (as well as June 15th in some places). He was canonized by Pope Innocent XI in 1681. Pope Pius XI – himself a mountaineer – proclaimed him patron saint of the Alps, and he is also the patron of those who enjoy God’s great outdoors in skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering.

They stopped using Saint Bernard’s as rescue dogs, and air travel, cars, helicopters and tunnels have made saving wayward footsore freezing pilgrims unnecessary. A number of the canon-priests still run the hostel at Saint Bernard’s pass, and a few of the eponymous dogs are kept around as pets. So should the reader ever pass that way, you can have your confession heard, attend a Mass, run around with the dogs, and, who knows, even have a sip of brandy to top it all off, before the long descent on your way to Rome.

Saint Bernard of Menthon, ora pro nobis! +