Rorate Caeli

Vatican II at 50: After 900 years, the Canons of Great Saint Bernard leave Italy, and wither in Switzerland


Chateau Verdun, Saint-Oyen
Aosta Valley, Italy

Farewell to the Last Monk of the Great Saint Bernard in Italy

SAINT-OYEN (AOSTA [Italy]) - Father Francis Darbellay, 77, canon of the Great Saint Bernard likes to be candid. “The other day, when we left the Hostel Chateau Verdun forever, they threw a party for us. There was the Bishop of Aosta, the President of the Regional Council and our Superior. To me, it did not seem like a party at all but more like a funeral. After a thousand years, we, the priests of the Congregation of the Canon Regulars of the Great Saint Bernard, are leaving the Aosta Valley and Italy. To us, it is the death of our soul. We are leaving the land of our birth, since it was Saint Bernard of Menthon, our founder, the archdeacon at Aosta, who built the hostel that took his name, high up there on Mont-Joux [in the Vallais, Switzerland]. We had four parishes, Gervasone college and the School for Agriculture in Aosta, which taught the production of cheese and wine to thousands of young people from the valleys. The Hostel of Chateau Verdun was our last stronghold. We are like Napoleon’s army, which arrived as far as Moscow and then was compelled to turn back.”

The elderly canon has no hope. “Our Provost, Canon Jean Marie Lovey, Superior of the Congregation, said: ‘God willing, we will return to the Vallée and Italy.’ But I don’t believe it. We have no more vocations. When I entered the order, there were 100 Canons. Now there are thirty of us, and many are retired now at the Mother House in Martigny in Switzerland.”Also Father Darbellay has retired. He was the last prior at Chateau Verdun.“I should have left for the Mother House in Martigny, but I asked for permission to stay in Italy. I was born in Switzerland but I have been a ‘valdostano’for fifty years now. I live in the Provost of St. Pierre along with other seven retired diocesan priests and I feel at home here. This house was also a stronghold, which was built by the Canons of Saint Bernard.”

And so the history of the Canons of Saint Bernard in Italy ends in this way, along with the hostel built at a height of 2473 metres (two hundred steps from the Swiss border) and which risks being abandoned in the years to come.
Canons of the Great Saint Bernard on a rescue mission, c. 1955

“When I started my novitiate” recounts Francis Darbellay, “there were five other boys with me, who were in love with Christ and the mountains. There were thirty of us between novices and canons up there at Saint Bernard’s. Two years of novitiate without ever descending once to the valley. It was wonderful. Up at 5.30 a.m., prayers, breakfast… we also practiced sport – skiing, of course. I experienced those last years when the Hostel was still the one wanted by Saint Bernard. “Hic Christus adoratur et pascitur" (Here Christ is adored and nourished), this was the motto inscribed in our stones. We learned how to ski in order to help the pilgrims in the blizzards, bring them back to the convent and give them refreshment. Skiing was not the same as it is today. In order to gain experience, we would climb for an hour and a half in ski-skins, and then in ten minutes we would be back down at the bottom again. And always on fresh snow, never on a ski-path. After every storm, we would go down the slopes in both Italy and Switzerland in order to find pilgrims or travellers lost in the blizzard. From Switzerland they would bring shoes, coffee, sugar, cigarettes and chocolate. They were fathers of families, and with that work had raised their children and built their homes. This went on until the middle of the 1970s, after that everything changed. Then new smugglers arrived who thought nothing about raising a family but only about a fast way of making money.” Until the end of the Second World War, hospitality was gratis. “At Chateau Verdun we used to have our very own farm. Cows, hens, pigs… in that way we could provide for the Hostel at Great Saint Bernard and feed both the Canons and the pilgrims. At the farm we would also do the laundry, because up there sheets, clothes and covers couldn’t be dried: the ice and the wind would have torn them up.”

Many things have changed on the slopes of the Great Saint Bernard. Since the tunnel which connects Italy and Switzerland was opened in 1964, it is now no longer necessary to climb the almost 2500 meters of the pass. “Whoever comes here now, does so not out of necessity.” says Canon Raffaele Duchoud, 52. “Travellers and pilgrims arrive looking for a bed or some hot soup, but most of all, to spend some time in ‘a haven for the spirit’. The days are built around moments of prayer. Morning Lauds at 7.15, Mid-Day Prayers at 11.50 , Holy Mass and Vespers at 18.15 and Compline at 21.00. “I don’t know how long we will be able to hold out. The last novice entered three years ago and since then the novitiate has been empty. We are only five religious in all: two canons, a permanent deacon, an oblate and an aspirant oblate. Then there are 140 employees, who look after the kitchen and hospitality .”

Canon of the Great Saint Bernard today
(note: new everyday shirt-habit adopted after the Council)

The pass closes on October 15 every year and opens in June. “You can only go up on your own two legs and wearing snowshoes,” says Canon Duchoud. “In winter twenty metres of snow can fall and you can get into the monastery only from the first floor. On the Italian slopes there are many avalanches but danger also arises with the fog. White snow beneath your feet, white all around you, you don’t see anything and you begin to panic. This is the “white death” which has stricken many travellers. Twenty odd years ago two of them were found close to us. They were eighty metres from the monastery and salvation, and they didn’t even know it.”

There is also the morgue behind the big hostel. “Up here we could not bury the dead, because of the rock under the thirty centimeters of earth. So we would hold the funeral in the church, always using the same coffin, and then the body was taken out of it, tied to a board and stood on its feet and laid against a wall inside the morgue. Up here bodies don’t decompose but become mummified. In that way, some relatives of the deceased, months or years later, were able to recognize them. There was a little window which allowed you to see these bodies awaiting eternity, and then after some decades, they would become dust and fall to the ground. Now it is all walled in.”

Even the Saint Bernard dogs – there are still eleven of them – have ended up in a museum. By paying 8 euros you may go into the rooms that describe the thousand- year history of the hostel and then you pass on into the kennels. “I’ll bring one out so that you can caress it.” [There are also] embalmed rock goats, eagles, white hares, marmots and pictures and prints that tell us of heroic centuries - the Canons in their habits, braving the storms in order to save lost people and the dogs finding men, women and children under avalanches.

This mountain pass has also seen History happen.

First, Brennus with his barbarians in 390 B.C., then, Hannibal with his elephants in 218 B.C., Napoleon - so the panels in the museum narrate – crossed the pass in May 1800 with 40,000 soldiers. The Canons provided them with 21,724 bottles of wine, 3,498 pounds of cheese, 749 of salt, 400 of bread, 1,758 of meat and 500 sheets. All for the total value of 40,000 franks. They received just 18,000 franks five years later.

“At one time,” continues Canon Raffaele Duchoud, “there was even a small stable, with pigs and cows. If the winter was too long, our butcher then set himself to work. Now there are freezers and the refectory for the religious has to serve only five people. Even the Saint Bernard dogs are sent to spend the winter in Martigny. The winter doesn’t frighten us anymore. We have wood and electricity. What makes us suffer is simply the absolute lack of vocations.”


Jenner Meletti, November 18, 2012, La Repubblica

[Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana; source: La Repubblica.]

25 comments:

De Stella Maris said...

How absolutely pitiful- the fruits of Vatican II for those who have eyes to see.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum tuum"

Brian2 said...

I don't know, the decline seems to have more to do with new transportation and heating technologies than Vatican II.

New Catholic said...

So, because there are fewer people to be rescued there are fewer vocations?...

Francis said...

"Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them".
(Matthew 7:19-20)

That about sums up the last fifty years known of Vatican II.

Hidden One said...

The needed rescue is now of a rather different type.

croixmom said...

This breaks my heart.

Scott Quinn said...

Wither? Wait, I thought V2 heralded a New Springtime? Where do we go to get a refund?

Lynda said...

Are they wholly orthodox, obedient and faithful? Have they retained any of the traditional form of the liturgy?

W.C. Hoag said...

Isn't the old portion of the International Seminary of St. Pius X at Econe a former house of the Canons of Saint Bernard?

Truth Seeker said...

There were many religious communities that closed or went defunct in the Middle East, especially Cappadocia, centuries before Vatican II, so historically the closing of monasteries took place.

A hundred years ago, it seemed that Mount Athos monasteries would not continue because of a lack of vocations, and then an influx of young monks and novices from all over the world started about 30 years ago. Again, V2 had nothing to do with either the attenuation or growth.

B. said...

I think he explained it very well:
I experienced those last years when the Hostel was still the one wanted by Saint Bernard. “Hic Christus adoratur et pascitur" (Here Christ is adored and nourished), this was the motto inscribed in our stones.

In similar news, the dominican monastery of Friesach, the oldest in German speaking countries and existing since 1217 has also been successfully renewed. It will close and be converted into a youth hostel.

David of Glasgow said...

To misquote Rex Motram, perhaps there really is a New Springtime and we're just too sinful to see it.

New Catholic said...

Yes, Mr. Hoag, the Écône original buildings, as well as the entire property, were originally a foundation of the Great Saint Bernard.

Long-Skirts said...

New Catholic said...

"...the Écône original buildings, as well as the entire property, were originally a foundation of the Great Saint Bernard."

INCREDIBLE
EDIBLE
CATHOLIC
EGG

Incredible
Edible
Catholic egg

For you
I'd sell
An arm and a leg.

Delighting rich
And simple
Folk

Hard-boiled
White
Around the yolk.

Sometimes scrambled
Sometimes
Fried

Often next
To bacon's
Side.

Spittering
Sputtering
Splashing grease

But into my life
You bring
Such peace.

For after
Matins' morning
Prayer

I go to the
Fridge
And you are there.

Always
Constant
Circled friend

No beginning
No big
End.

Reminding me
When sick
Or well

You're always
There
Inside the shell.

Ready to
Nourish
Ready to feed

Obeying God
Your dairy
Creed.

And yes
You're Catholic
Incredible egg

For monks say
You're best...
With a St. Bernard’s keg!

"Écône...originally a foundation of the Great Saint Bernard"

...and with the help of Catholic womens' eggs and a St. Bernard keg, now and then, we are filling back up the Traditional Catholic Seminaries. Deo (hic*up!)Gratias!!

GQ Rep said...

"Truth Seeker said...
There were many religious communities that closed or went defunct in the Middle East, especially Cappadocia, centuries before Vatican II, so historically the closing of monasteries took place.

A hundred years ago, it seemed that Mount Athos monasteries would not continue because of a lack of vocations, and then an influx of young monks and novices from all over the world started about 30 years ago. Again, V2 had nothing to do with either the attenuation or growth."

Hey Truth Seeker,

Before I was lucky enough to get my present job (I'm a model for GQ magazine and some others, which explains my nameon this blog), I was a history major in college (graduated, 2004), and taught highschool for afew years.

The reason monasteries went extinct in the Middle East (Cappadocia in Turkey), and other places was in the 7th century with the rise of Islam. Islam overran countries which had up until then been Greek Orthodox (nations which are now Syria, Iraq, Egypt, etc.) What is now most of Turkey stayed Orthodox Christian until the mid 15th century when the Ottoman armies overran and destroyed the Byzantine Empire which had lasted from about the year 450 until the late 15th century.
The decline of Middle Eastern monastic communities had nothing to do with a Vatican II like event, or a decline in vocations. The entire culture and religion was erased by force by Islamic armies. Remnants continued to exist for a thousand years, until the region became entirely Islamic.

It is true about Mount Athos though. Secularism and a lack of interest among the young contributed to a decline at Mt. Athos from right after WWII until the late 1970's, when a renaissance of vocations began which continues today. It was a re-discovering among many young Greek Orthodox men, and from other Orthodox nations of an interest in the traditions of their faith.
There was no Vatican II event in Eastern Orthodoxy whereby the traditions of the ancient Faith were discarded and replaced with "make it up as we go along" junk. or immitation Lutheran thinking.

Vatican II, and it's reforms (whether intentional or not), destroyed the 1,500 year old tradiitons of the Catholic Faith, especially in liturgy and religious life. The result was an almost immediate turn away by the faithful from the modern replacements that the Vatican and others tried to force. The collapse of vocations to these Canons (and thousands of other Orders), is the result.
Only those that have kept tradition are stable or actually growing.

So part of your statement is true, but the piece about Middle Eastern religious Orders dying out on their own etc. is innaccurate. The tide of Islam in the 7th century which swept over the whole area wiped out Christianity and monastic life.
Only in Egypt today, with the Coptic Orthodox Church, is there a remnant of what the entire Middle East was like previous to the 7th century (as paganism died out gradually after the 3rd century, it was a flourishing Orthodox Christian world from about 375 AD until the 700's AD. By 900 AD the whole area was almost entirely Islamic.

Andrew said...

I know that more than a couple traditional communities in the USA and elsewhere are building new monasteries. Instead of building new monasteries why don't these communities take over these ancient monasteries? Not only would they be taking over an ancient foundation that should continue, they would help revive the Church in places where it is much needed. Its hard to justify raising millions of dollars for a new monastery building when there are ancient monasteries just waiting to be lived and prayed in. I like how the Benedictines in Norcia (mostly Americans) are working hard to revive monastic life in St. Benedict's birth place. They have been given an abandoned Capuchin friary and are working hard to bring it back to life. They are also doing well for vocations. I can think of a few communities (i.e. the Carmelites in Wyoming) who should consider taking this foundation over.

Andrew said...

A friend of mine recently told me that Mother Angelica's nuns have vocations to spare. Perhaps they should take it over...

http://olamshrine.com/

NIANTIC said...

Andrew, yes it would be great if new monastic foundations would be able to establish themselves in now closing or abandoned monasteries.
However, we need these monasteries here in North America as well. They are desperately needed because they are a living and present reminder to us of constant prayer and adoration of God on their and our behalf.
The more the better everywhere. Let us hope and pray that God will move the hearts of many young men and women in Europe to maintain or re-establish these holy places over there.

Long-Skirts said...

Andrew said:

"I know that more than a couple traditional communities in the USA and elsewhere are building new monasteries. Instead of building new monasteries why don't these communities take over these ancient monasteries?"

I can only speak for the SSPX in my city but they HAVE tried buying closed down Churches, schools, convents, etc. In our diocese they are discriminated against. Several years ago we tried to buy a closed down old and very beautiful Catholic Church with a school AND convent. We had to have laity try to purchase it as the SSPX priests were always turned down. When time came to purchase the Diocese had a clause in the contract, "You must not sell, rent or lease to the Society of St. Pius X for 50 years." The realtor wanted the SSPX to sue for discrimination and take it to the State Capitol as this was gross discrimination but the priests wouldn't do it. When I asked our Pastor why not fight this as it had happened so many times he said, "We don't humiliate Mother Church."

Now, many of our once beautiful Churches and Schools have been turned into restaurants and lofts - thank God not a "Dwelling place for Our Lord" or schools to teach the Whole True Faith to future generations.

DAMN THE TORPEDOES...

Nowhere to kneel
No Tabernacle
No candle red
Just marble crackle

A sepulchre
Deathly white
To help good souls
Despair, take flight

That's WHAT they want
That is their plan
Then mock, "You dis -
obedient man!"

But in the depths
Of doctrine deep
Sails the Ship
That will not sleep

Full of disobedient
Sheep
Obeying Christ
In priests that keep

The Barque of Peter
On its course
Though her bowels be bricked
By a sinister source

Then damn the torpedoes
Tridentine-lead
Will blast through the block
Full speed ahead

No sepulchre whites
Disobedient heirs --
Only seas of gold Masses
By the Archbishop's Peres!

Augustinus said...

It is all too easy to say that the traditional communities should just "take over" these monasteries. Unfortunately there are many factors to keep in mind, such as:

1) The willingness of the current owners to sell to traditional communities;

2) The ability of traditional communities to buy or even maintain old monasteries. Many of these old monasteries are HUGE and in need of equally huge amounts simply to maintain. There's no sense in buying a monastery designed for a hundred monks or more, then have it staffed by 3 or 4 young religious, no matter how fervent.

3) The needs of the apostolate. Maintaining a huge monastery -- often located in some part of Europe that is undergoing depopulation -- might not necessarily be the best use of a fledgling community's resources

The SSPX recently decided to set up a new seminary in Virginia than buy up one of the numerous old monasteries or seminaries that have been shut down in the last 4 decades. The reason, according to the SSPX, was that it was cheaper and more practical to do so.

Augustinus said...

Truth Seeker said:

"There were many religious communities that closed or went defunct in the Middle East, especially Cappadocia, centuries before Vatican II, so historically the closing of monasteries took place."

They usually took place due to war, pillage and persecution, just like the once-flourishing monasteries in the Near East and the fallen abbeys of England and northern Europe. What is happening in the West today -- the closure of hundreds of monasteries and convents over 4 decades and counting -- has no parallel in Church history, not the least because of its self-inflicted nature.

"A hundred years ago, it seemed that Mount Athos monasteries would not continue because of a lack of vocations, and then an influx of young monks and novices from all over the world started about 30 years ago. Again, V2 had nothing to do with either the attenuation or growth."

The sudden fall in the number of monks in Athos was, to a great extent, due to the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the sudden drying up of Russian vocations to the "Holy Mountain". Added to this was Greek chauvinism that, beginning in the 1920's and continuing (albeit in attenuated form) today, greatly limited the number of non-Greek monks who could enter the monasteries. Last but not the least was the relaxation of monastic discipline that began to be reversed only in the 1960's (precisely when the West was beginning its own relaxations in religious life). If anything, the story of Mount Athos merely reinforces the idea that the way to health in monasticism is through fidelity to ancient rigor. In the West, who can deny that the processes unleashed by Vatican II damaged religious life, not least by its demands for "updating" and its relaxation of many venerable rules?

J. G. Ratkaj, Salvador da Bahia said...

It breaks my heart to hear such news. As a pupil in the late 1940s and early 1950s my grandfather often sent me to Switzerland in the summer break. I have vivid memories of especially the then strong and beneficial presence of the capucins. I visited last month Switzerland again and had to learn that they are de facto extinct there. Most houses closed, the few remaining ones filled with geriatrics. I'm afraid that this is only the begin, dozens of Illustrious monasteries across europe, which survived enlightenment and revolutions, will close in the next decade.

NIANTIC said...

Thank you, LONG SKIRTS.
I fully agree and repeat after you; "DAMN THE TORPEDOES" and FULL SPEED AHEAD.

Eric Anthony said...

What's sick is that so many people are celebrating the last 50 years, as if they are happy about the destruction happening.

And what traditional community wants to take over a monastery that has been wreckovated?

GQRep said...

"Eric Anthony said...
What's sick is that so many people are celebrating the last 50 years, as if they are happy about the destruction happening.

And what traditional community wants to take over a monastery that has been wreckovated?"

Eric-

Yes, it is sick that people would want to celebrate the last 50 years...and that includes the Pope. No disrespect intended to him, but Vatican II is nothing to celebrate. I think that he thinks he has to, because there are so many aged Cardinals, bishops, etc. that surround him and also in dioceses who expect it and want this commemoration. They want to glorify Vatican II as if the Catholic Church was re-born with it. Nothing is further from the truth.

Hey, listen...I've been everywhere over the last 5 1/2 years in my job. I make a point of visiting Catholic sites, monasteries, convents etc. as a pilgrim on my spare time during my work. It;s not much time, but it refreshes my soul, and seperates me from the sometimes excessive partying etc. mentality which goes along with my job after we finish a photo shoot/project in a specific country. If it's a Catholic country, I backpack to shrines, monasteries, and cloisters with 1-2 associates on our team who share my religious sensibilities ( 1-2 associates out of maybe 100 on a project..LOL!!)
But there ARE traditionalist Orders of monks, friars, sisters, and new groups of cloistered nuns taking over closed modernist monasteries and other religious houses....particularly in France but also in Spain and Italy. Unfortunatly, there are also pro-Vatican II new religious Orders which pass themselves off as traditional (and they are in some ways) which are also taking over closed religious houses. They are better that the dissident dissenters who closed down, but of course not as great as if an SSPX or other traditional group would take over the building.
I've also seen dozens of closed monasteries being taken over by "sede vacantist" traditionalist groups-which although not ideal, are better than the liberal corrupting groups that preceeded them.
Lastly (and this is really sad), I've seen monasteries and other houses bought by the town they were in and turned into totally secular buildings. Some serve useful functions ( like afew in Germany which were turned into homes for the aged....one staffed by nuns but not owned by them). Others have been turned into appartments, theaters, medical buildings, schools, shops, restaurants, and unfortunatly...mini-malls and bars.
This is all the result of what came from Vatican II, and until the generations who still praise it are either too old or passed from the scene, this will continue.

But have hope. New religious Orders are taking over closed houses. Many are traditionalist, or at least favorable to it. Many, many young priests below 45 actually despise Vatican II (surprisingly), and resent what came from it. We have to wait for these people to come into positions of power to change things.
The late, great Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (no friend of Vatican II or Paul VI), once said that it will take 200 years for the Catholic Church to recover from the disaster of Vatican II.
Let's pray and hope that he was just a bit too pessimistic! : )