The Pass of the Great St. Bernard was a well-known one long before the hospice was built. Before the Christian era, the Romans used it as a highway across the Alps, constantly improving the road as travel over it increased. Many lives were lost, however, as no material safeguards could obviate the danger from the elements, and no one will ever know the number of souls who met their end in the blinding snows and chilling blasts of those Alpine heights.
To Bernard de Menthon is due the credit of the mountain hospice. He was the originator of the idea and the founder of the institution. He has since been canonized as a saint and he well deserved the honor, if it be a virtue to sacrifice oneself, as we believe, and to try and save the lives of one’s fellows t It is no easy existence which St. Bernard chose for himself and followers. The very aspect of the pass is grand but gloomy. None of the softness of nature is seen. There is no verdure, no beauty of coloring, nothing but bleak, bare rock, great piles of stones, and occasional patches of fallen snow. It is thoroughly exposed, the winds always moaning mournfully around the buildings.
The trip begins at Martigny. First there is a level stretch, then a long, steady climb, after which begins the real road to the pass. The views are very lovely, and while quite different in some ways excel all passes except the famous Simplon. The scenery is very varied, the mountains are far enough off to give a good perspective, and the villages are most picturesque. The absence of snow peaks in any great number will be felt by some, but even a lover of such soon forgets the lack in the exceeding beauty and loveliness of the valleys.
Toward the top of the pass there is quite a transformation. Both the road and the scenery change, the first becoming more and more steep and stony, the latter showing more and more of savage grandeur, as the green, smiling valleys are no longer seen, but in their place appear barren and rugged rocks and slopes, with the marks of the ravages wrought by storm, landslide and avalanche. The wind has fuller play and seems to moan in a mournful, dirge-like manner, accentuating the characteristics of bleakness and desolation which obtain at the top of the pass, all the more noticeable if the traveler arrives at dusk, just as the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.
In this dreary place stands the hospice. ,The present buildings are not very old, the hospice only dating from the sixteenth century and the church from the seventeenth century, while the other structures, which have been built for the accommodation of strangers are comparatively new. Twelve monks of the Augustinian Order are regularly in residence here. They come when about twenty years of age; but so severe is the climate, so hard the life and so stern the rule that, after a service of about fifteen years, they generally have to seek a lower altitude, often ruined in health, with their powers completely sapped by the rigors and privations which they have endured. Altho the hospice and the adjoining hostelry for the travelers are cheer-less in the extreme, there is always a warm welcome from the monks. No one, however poor, is refused bed and board for the night, and there is no “distinction of persons.” The hospitality is extended to all, free of charge, this being the in-variable rule of the institution, but it is expected, and rightly so, that those who can do so will de-posit a liberal offering in the box provided for the purpose. The small receipts, however, show what a great abuse there is of this hospitality, for a large number of those who come in the summer could well afford to give and to give largely.
We hear much of the courage and perseverance of Hannibal and Caesar in leading their armies over the Alps ! We see pictures of Napoleon and his soldiers as they toiled up the pass, dragging along their frozen guns, and perhaps falling into a fatal sleep about their dying camp fires at night ! And we rightly admire such bravery, and thrill with admiration at the tale. Yet those armies which crossed the Alps failed to equal the heroic self-sacrifice of those soldiers of the cross, the Monks of the Grand St. Bernard, who remain for years at their post, unknown and unsung by the wide, wide world, simply to save and shelter the humble travelers who come to grief in their winter journey across the pass, in search of work.