Most of us are familiar with the dog known as the St. Bernard. However, many are not aware of how the dog obtained its name or the person from whom the dog takes its name. The saint for whom the dog is named is indeed Bernard. He is known as St. Bernard of Menthon and he lived from around 923 to 1008. Here is a bit of his story.
Preparing for a Life of Nobility
Bernard was the only son of two noble parents Richard and Bernoline de Doingt. As was mentioned, he was born around the year 923, and he was raised in the Chateau of Menthon which is on Lake Annecy in Savoy. At the time the family's land was part of the Frankish Empire and belonged specifically to the Kingdom of Upper Burgundy which lay between the Swiss Jura and the Pennine Alps.
It is believed that his parents had him educated at a cloister school where he would have learned mathematics, music, and letters along with learning about the Faith and Bible stories. At home, he was also taught by a tutor named Germain.
Richard and Bernoline had chosen a very suitable tutor in Germain as he inspired the young Bernard to live a life of noble pursuits such as courage, virtue, and resolve to pursue the highest. Germain and Bernard also enjoyed boyish pursuits native to his homeland such as hiking in the woods and scaling the snow-covered mountains. Certainly, they experienced risks, but these only made their adventures more exciting and the view earned by their high climbing efforts even more enjoyable.
As members of the nobility, his parents were anxious to prepare their son for a life as the heir to his father. For them, this included preparing Bernard for marriage. As was typical of the time and their class, Richard and Bernoline arranged their son's marriage. Bernard's parents selected Marguerite de Miolans who shared their level of nobility. Little did his parents know that young Bernard had secretly discerned that God was calling him climb a different path as a religious.
Sticking to His Calling and Disappointing his Parents
When Bernard's secret calling became known to them, Richard and Bernoline acted swiftly by first dismissing Germain because they suspected his influence upon their son had led to these misguided thoughts. Then, they packed off Bernard to Castle Miolans with the hope that time spent with the beautiful girl and her family would break his resolve to take religious vows.
Indeed all seemed set to proceed as planned as the wedding was planned and the actual nuptial day drew nigh. All of the qualities that he learned had come to bear, and Bernard acted decisively on the night before his wedding. Trusting in his call from the Lord, he wrote a note which he left for his parents, and then proceeded to escape from the Castle Miolans where the wedding was to have taken place. Bernard made his way out by dropping from the balcony of his room, climbing the high wall that surrounded the former fortress, and heading for his beloved mountains.
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Following his Vocation
With firm resolve of purpose, Bernard began his trek that would ultimately cover over 100 miles as he made his way to the foot of the Pennine Alps. Finally, he presented himself to Peter who was the Archdeacon of Aosta, which is in modern day Italy. Peter heard his story, agreed that the young Bernard had a vocation, and took him in to begin his religious training.
Indeed, Bernard was a young man of great promise in the eyes of his teachers and the archdeacon, and he did not fail to live up to their aspirations for him. Eventually, Peter had Bernard prepared for and then ordained a priest. At that time, Bernard hoped to be sent as a missionary to a far flung region of the Alps, which despite the efforts of others, were filled with many who needed to hear the Gospel.
However, because of his great capabilities, Benard succeeded Peter as the archdeacon of the diocese in the year 966. This meant he was in charge of the governing of the diocese under the guidance of the bishop. In this position, he decided he would realize his missionary dream by spending himself in his efforts to evangelize to the pagans and idol worshipers who lived scattered throughout the nearby regions of the Alps.
Over the next 42 years, he traveled throughout the regions of Lombardy with apostolic zeal and preached the Gospel and celebrated the sacraments wherever he went. During his travels, he encountered the difficulties of Alpine living and travel. Through his experience of the dangers of the mountains covered with snow and the dangers posed by robbers, he began to dream of a way to serve those who traveled the most well-trod pilgrimage trails that were near his home diocese.
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An Apostolate of Hospitality
Many a pilgrim from the regions of Germany and France would take the high alpine pass that went from the Swiss area of Valais to the valley of Aosta through the Pennine Alps. They would travel this way in order to make a pilgrimage to Rome where they could pray at the many churches in the Eternal City. It was certainly not the easiest way, but it was the shortest route. The pass near the top was perpetually covered with snow up to seven and eight feet high with even taller drifts, and in the springtime when many undertook this route, the danger of avalanches was constant.
To help these pilgrims, Bernard wanted to build a monastery and hospice at the very top of the pass on Jove Mountain which is around 8,000 feet above sea level. After much effort to get the project completed, he finally saw it realized. Later, he had another monastery and hospice built on another nearby pass that is around 7,076 feet above sea level. Today, these passes are known as Grand St. Bernard and Petit St. Bernard, respectively.
The monks who served at these monasteries offered hospitality to pilgrims as well as aid to those who were ill or had gotten injured in their travels. They provided food, clothing, and shelter to the weary pilgrims. In addition, the monks provided search and rescue to pilgrims who had wandered off the path during snow storms or had been swept off the side of the mountain by an avalanche. When they were found, they would be taken back to the hospice to receive medical care and a place to recover. Or, if they had perished, they were given a Christian burial on the grounds of the monastery. As Bernard had hoped, the corporal works of mercy were the daily labor of these monks.
Man's Best Friend Serves the Pilgrims
And that, of course, is where the story of the dogs begins. To aid in their work, the monks would find and train large dogs who were suited to travel through the snow, stay warm, and were strong enough to carry supplies. Now at the beginning, the dogs did not look like the St. Bernard dogs we know today. Those dogs did not appear for several centuries later as they were especially bred by the monks for the purposes of helping in the search and rescue. As an important part of the apostolate he started, the dogs were given the name St. Bernard in honor of the founder of the monasteries and hospices.
In fact, the monasteries and hospices exist to this day. Amazingly, after almost a millennium, the fruit of Bernard's dream continues. During his lifetime, Bernard traveled to Rome and received Pope John XIV's permission to place the care of the monasteries under the Canons Regular of St. Augustine as a new congregation called the Canons Regular of the Hospitaller Congregation.
The monks who served in the two original monasteries would be the seeds that would grow into over 400 monasteries of the order by the 16th century. There were 200 hundred alone in the country of Ireland at that time. Today, the numbers are greatly reduced. Now the number of monks that serve in the monasteries is in the dozens and instead of search and rescue, they mainly serve in parishes.
Canonized in 1681 by Pope Innocent XI, St. Bernard was made the patron of mountain climbers and the Alps by Pope Pius XI in 1923. He is also the patron of mountaineers, skiers, and by extension snowboarders.
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Closing the Loop
There is one final story about Bernard that is interesting because it brings closure to part of his life unlike is the case with some other saints.
As time went along, many learned of the sanctity of Bernard and would make their way to his monastery as a pilgrimage to visit this holy priest. One such older couple made the difficult trek in order see the famous Bernard and to share their grief with him in hopes of having it relieved. Bernard listened to their story about how they had lost the joy of life when their only child, a son, had forsaken them and his inheritance only to disappear and never to be heard from since then.
They shared with the priest how their dreams of him being married and taking charge of the family had been dashed in an instance leaving them sad and empty. Although it had been many years and they had lived full lives, they had always had an underlying sad note playing in their hearts.
Bernard looked at them and consoled them as best he could with words of comfort. Then, he shared with them another way to see the loss. Perhaps, God had different plans for the son, maybe even higher plans than they had for his life. Then, without much notice, Bernard left the couple's company to go to pray for wisdom.
Somewhat surprised, the older couple remained where they were and waited for his return while turning over his words to them and commenting how Bernard reminded them of their son.
When he returned, Bernard shocked the older couple by announcing that he was their Bernard, the very son they thought they had lost. They all embraced and tears of joy flowed as they were reunited. His parents remained with Bernard for many days before returning to their home rejoicing in the goodness of God and how His ways are higher than ours.
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Feast Day (Memorial): June 15th
Patron of the Alps
Patron on mountain climbers
Patron of skiers
Patron of travelers in the mountains
Patron of mountaineers