May 28, 2013 - Feast Day of St. Bernard of Montjoux

Bernard of Montjoux was probably born around 1020, probably in what is now Italy. He worked as a priest in the Italian Alps. He built schools and hospitals, but he is most famous for building shelters for mountain climbers and travelers using a path across the Pennine Alps. The pass that people used to cross the mountains was always covered by seven to eight feet of snow—with drifts up to 40 feet deep! Of course, travelers moving through so much snow faced dangers, such as getting lost and hypothermia, and in this location there was particular danger from avalanches.

Bernard built a hospice in that pass, 8,000 feet above sea level. A few years later, he established another hospice in another pass, about 7,000 feet above sea level.

These hospices have been used by travelers for nearly 1,000 years! They were famous for their hospitality to all travelers, offering not just shelter but also food, clothing, and medical aid. The canons who lived there and cared for the travelers trained large dogs to help search for people lost in snowstorms or buried in avalanches. Of course, you will have guessed that the dogs are known as St. Bernards!

Nowadays there are still about 35 people living at the hospices and offering help to travelers and adventurers. St. Bernard dogs still live there, too—but they are mostly pets; these days helicopters are used in rescue operations.

What a great legacy—Bernard is considered the patron saint of skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering. And a wonderful breed of dog is named after him!

By the way...

Many St. Bernard dogs are pictured with small barrels attached to their collars. But the search-and-rescue dogs at Bernard's hospices never carried such barrels. A 17-year-old painter named Edwin Landseer painted Alpine dogs trying to help an injured traveler, in 1820, and he painted a small barrel around one of the dog's necks. Landseer said that the barrel contained brandy, a restorative for cold, possibly injured travelers. In actual fact, brandy would make a person suffering from exposure even more cold, so it should never be used as a “restorative” in this situation!

Still, the imagination of a young artist has added something to the public image of St. Bernard dogs. Many owners of “Saints,” as they are sometimes called, purchase collars decorated with the small barrels—some of them marked with a red cross. Apparently many of the small barrels on collars do not have any opening, so not only are the barrels empty, there is no way to fill them nor to sip or gulp liquid from them!

I thought it was funny that such small-barrel collars are even kept at the hospice, these days; even though the Alpine guides assure us that the breed never carried brandy or any other beverage in barrels around their necks, visitors want to take photos of dogs with barrels, so the guides keep a few on hand!

Plan Ahead...

Check out my Pinterest boards of June holidayshistorical anniversaries in June, and June birthdays.

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the Battle of the Eclipse

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