The highest church in the world is found in the Alps, 8,ooo feet up on what was once considered to be the most dangerous mountain pass in Europe. Though the hospice and monastery were founded in the 11th century, it wasn’t until 500 years later that resident monks were the recipients of mastiff-type dogs probably donated by families in Valais to help them pull loads, provide companionship, and serve as watch dogs against ne’er-do-wells traveling through the pass between Italy and Switzerland.
By now, you’ve likely guessed that the dogs were St. Bernards. Despite the intended purposes of the dogs, the monks quickly discovered that the canines had an excellent sense of direction, an almost otherworldly ability to navigate through dense fog and snow storms, and a knack for sensing an imminent avalanche, and warning of it. Before long, the monks were breeding the dogs for mountain rescue as they were sufficiently strong to cross deep snow drifts, and had an uncanny drive and ability to find lost travelers by scent.
Compared to today’s Saint, the early Saint Bernards were smaller and had shorter coats, possibly because the monks were more particular about the dogs’ markings than having a great size. They wanted an a brindle or orange tawny colored dog with white markings. Preferred was a dog with a white line running up between his eyes and over his skull, joining the back, and connecting to a white collar that circled the dog’s neck, and extending down to the front of his shoulders. It was not often that such markings were clearly defined, but it’s said that the monks valued them because they represented the stole, chasuble and scapular which formed part of the vestments worn by the monks at the time.
In 2004, the monks of the St. Bernard hospice and monastery sold the last of their dogs. The last litter to be whelped there (six puppies — four males and two females) — was born in September, 2014. The St. Bernard tradition is now continued today by the Barry Foundation in Martigny.