Saint Bernard of Montjoux is the patron saint of hikers,backpackers, mountain climbers and alpine skiers. The accounts of his charity, hospitality, and courage on behalf of travelers in the Pennine Alps between Switzerland and Italy are renowned.
Although little is known of his early life, Bernard was thought to be born in Italy around 923. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained for the Diocese of Aosta which was in northwestern Italy at the foot of the Alps.
In time, Bernard was appointed Vicar General of Aosta, and spent more than four decades building churches and schools, evangelizing and exercising pastoral care over those who lived in the nearby mountains. He is especially remembered for the alpine monastery and hospices he built to aid travelers in the mountain passes leading to Aosta.
Since the most ancient times there has been a path across the Pennine Alps used by French and German pilgrims on their way to Rome. The traditional route of this pass is covered with perpetual snow and drifts sometimes accumulate to the height of forty feet. The pass could be dangerous, especially in the springtime when avalanches occurred. For the safety of the pilgrims Saint Bernard founded a monastery and established travelers’ hospices; one at the highest point of the pass, 8,000 feet above sea-level, in the year 962.
Bernard also established a religious community of men who rescued travelers, ministered to those who had fallen victim to mountain hazards,and cleared the passes of bandits. At all seasons of the year, but especially during heavy snow storms, these heroic monks, accompanied by their well-trained herding dogs, went out in search of stranded travelers. They provided them with food, clothing, and shelter.
Even through the 20th century Bernard’s hospices were well known for the generous hospitality extended to all travelers over the Great and Little St. Bernard alpine passes, named in his honor.
Bernard was canonized in 1681, and then paid a unique tribute in the late 1800s when European dog breeders renamed their alpine herding and rescue dogs, the St. Bernard. His feast day is May 28.
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