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.]