St. Bernard De. Menthon’s and his Famous Dogs Who Saved Countless Lives In The Alps

Painting of hooded man with 2 St. Bernard dogs on each side

St. Bernard de Menthon

Born in(probably) the castle Menthon near Annecy, in Savoy and died in Novara, Italy 1081. He was descended from a rich, noble family and received a thorough education. He refused to enter a marriage proposed by his father and decided instead to devote himself to the service of the Church, placing himself under the direction of Peter, Archdeacon of Aosta. He worked as a missionary in the mountain villages in the Alps and was appointed Archdeacon of Aosta (966), having charge of the government of the diocese under the bishop. For forty two years he continued to preach the Gospel to these people and carried the light of faith even into many cantons of Lombardy.

St Bernard’s Passes

Since the most ancient times there has been a path across the Pennine Alps leading from the Aosta Valley to the Swiss canton of Valais. The traditional route of this pass is covered with perpetual snow from seven to eight feet deep, and drifts sometimes in excess of forty feet. Although the pass was extremely dangerous, it was often used by French and German pilgrims on their way to Rome.

Greater St. Bernard Pass today

In his office as archdeacon, Bernard had the charge of caring for the poor and for their convenience and protection, founded a canonry and hostel in 1050 at the highest point of the pass( 8,000 feet above sea-level) now called Great St. Bernard’s pass A few years later he established another hostel on what’s now known as Little St Bernard Pass.

Little St. Bernard Pass today

History of the St. Bernard

Sometime between 1660 and 1670, the monks at Great St. Bernard Hospice acquired their first St. Bernards—descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs brought over by the Romans to serve as their watchdogs and companions. 

The earliest written records of the St. Bernard are from monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass in 1707, with paintings and drawings of the dog dating even earlier. The monks at the hospice used to travel the pass with their dogs saving travellers stranded or injured during the perilous journey through the pass. Early British accounts of the breed described the breed as the Alpine Spaniel based purely on appearance and the first evidence that the dogs were in use at the monastery appeared in two paintings dating to 1690 by Italian artist Salvator Rosa.

Salvador Rosa painting of 2 St Bernards(1695)

The monks would also send the dogs out alone in groups of 2 or 3 dogs to find lost or injured travellers. The canines made rescue excursions on the St. Bernard Pass for the next 150 years. Often the dogs would find buried travellers, dig through the snow and lie on top of the injured to provide warmth. Meanwhile, the other dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks of the stranded victims.

The system became so organized that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not one soldier lost his life. The soldiers’ chronicles tell of how many lives were saved by the dogs in what the army called “the White Death.”

Near Extinction

Between 1816 and 1818, the winter snowstorms at St. Bernard Pass were particularly severe, and many dogs died in avalanches while doing rescue work. As a result, the St. Bernard breed living at the hospice came close to extinction. However, the breed was replenished two years later with similar animals from nearby valleys and then Newfoundlands brought in from Canada in the 1850s.

A modern St. Bernard

All in all, the St. Bernard rescue dogs were credited with saving the lives of more than 2,000 people until the last documented recovery in 1897 when a 12-year-old boy was found nearly frozen in a crevice and awakened by a dog.

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