Great St Bernard Pass is the third highest Pass in Switzerland. It has a long history of use beginning with Celtic tribes, then the Romans, followed by the Christians. Today, Via Francigena pilgrims are welcomed at the Hospice on their journey across the Swiss Alps.
Read on to find out why Great St Bernard Pass is not one of Sigeric’s Stopovers!
The Romans built a temple on the Alpis Poenina. It was near a sacred rock which was used as an altar dedicated to the mountain god Jupiter Poeninus. Travellers made offerings to the god seeking safe passage through the Pass. Excavations have revealed the remains of the temple and two mansions which most likely served as lodgings for travellers.
As early as 380 AD there is evidence of Christian communities led by bishops in the local areas. For example, in Aosta, Martigny and St Maurice remains of early Churches have been excavated. Consequently, the Mont-Joux Pass would have been used by pilgrims, monastery abbots and bishops travelling to Rome to meet the Pope and visit St Peter’s tomb.
However, it was very hazardous crossing the Alps due to robbers, excessive tolls, cold, snow, blizzards, avalanches, fog, and exhaustion. And, the temple and the mansions had been destroyed. As a result, there was no protection for travellers for the 25 km walk from Bourg St Pierre to St Rhémy.
Bernard of Mehthon
Bernard was born of a noble family near Annecy around 1020 AD. But he decided to join a religious order and served under the Bishop of Aosta. When he became Archdeacon of the Cathedral, he was in charge of the needy. In this role, he cared for many travellers – pilgrims, merchants, soldiers or simple travellers who had crossed the Mont-Joux Pass. These people often arrived wounded, robbed, exhausted and in a state of shock. They had faced blizzard, cold, snow, avalanches and robbery. And many of their companions had died.
For 7 months of the year, the Mont-Joux Pass was covered in snow and dreaded by travellers. Bernard realised that a safe refuge was needed for travellers crossing the Pass.
So Bernard set about establishing a Hospice at the Pass, including a religious community who followed the rules of St Augustine. They constantly prayed, as well as welcoming, accompanying and rescuing travellers. His motto was, ‘Here the Christ is loved and fed’.
Bernard died in June 1081. He was canonised in 1123 and his feast day is 15th June. The Pope proclaimed him patron of the inhabitants of the Alps. And there are many legends associated with Saint Bernard. In particular, the role of the Grand St Bernard dogs in rescuing travellers trapped in the snow.
It is thanks to St Bernard that the Pass was made safe. Today it is named after him. It is said that he ‘tamed the devil’ which implies that he mastered the perils of the Alps. Today the canons continue to sing his songs of praise, and welcome and care for travellers.
Sigeric travelled from Canterbury to Rome in 990 AD. But St Bernard was not born until 1020 AD. So when Sigeric made his journey to Rome there was no Hospice at Great St Bernard Pass. Consequently he would have faced all the perils of the risky journey from Bourg St Pierre to St Rhèmy!
Go to 2019 pilgrimages to plan your visit to Great St Bernard Pass.