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Archives Not the St. Bernard most people think

April 20, 2022

By Mary Beth Bracy
Contributing Writer

SARANAC LAKE – Father Martin E. Cline, pastor of St. Bernard of Montjoux Parish in Saranac Lake, noted that their patron is often confused with St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In fact, he said, “we are one of only two St. Bernard of Montjoux parishes in the United States. Depending on which legend you go by, he’d be 1,000 years old this year. His community in the Alps is celebrating.”

“Saranac Lake is part of the Adirondacks. St. Bernard is part of that connection, as he is patron of those who live, travel, and participate in sports of the mountains—skiers, and snowshoers,” shared Father Cline.

“It is very difficult to find images of St. Bernard,” Father Cline commented. “There are no consistent images. Some frescoes, but there seems to be a couple of different images.” One of his parishioners, Ken Wiley, is painting an image of St. Bernard for inside of their Church.

Their door is open, Father Cline reflected, “We’re here, the church is open, especially for travelers. There has been a number of hikers, people coming through the mountains, 46 peaks, looking for a church and seeing us here, seeking as their going. We hope that they see the connection and come to the parish. We have a number of parishioners who are hikers and skiers.”

St. Bernard’s is discussing plans for a celebration. Father Cline explained that, at the celebration before he became pastor, “they brought in skiers and hikers, and blessed poles for parishioners.”

Tony Waickman, who helped research about St. Bernard, described that they created a festival which began with a Saturday evening Mass and expanded to a blessing of guides and equipment. “People brought in camping gear, hiking boots, and put them before the altar. We are hoping to have this grow.”

“We worked together with the Left Bank Café,” Waickman continued, “and had a large supper based upon Northern Italy where St. Bernard comes from. We put up maps to make it real and filled the restaurant, priests were there.”

As the local St. Bernard’s opens its doors to travelers, the saint for whom the parish is named is also known for hospitality.

“The other thing that’s really fun is that St. Bernard had two hospices as a refuge (or resting stop),” Waickman said. “He built the great St. Bernard and lesser St. Bernard hospices located on Switzerland’s pilgrimage route to get to France or Italy. In bad weather it was really dangerous. St. Bernard’s is a gorgeous place high in the alps, with a big lake hotel, Church, and museum.” Augustinian Canons Regular (clerics), the order that continues his work, still live there and speak primarily French.

Waickman related his inspiration for planning celebrations of their patron.

“The Catholic Church is falling on hard times,” he said. I wanted to try to celebrate the faith and culture of the Church. I’ve lived in other places where religion was the fabric of life, we’ve lost that and I am trying to rekindle it in some small way.”

It is remarkable to consider the work and sacrifices that went into building the hospices, elucidated Waickman, since all of the heavy duty building materials, food, and other supplies had to be transported up the mountain.

“Structures had to be built sturdy enough to withstand the hurricane force winds that frequently blew through these passes and had to be insulated against the frigid cold that prevailed for much of the year,” detailed Tom Kalinowski, who wrote a pamphlet about St. Bernard based on his research and contact with the canons.

Moreover, St. Bernard’s holiness was such that people gravitated toward helping him with these difficult projects. People were inspired “to venture out, despite the harsh alpine conditions, to search for lost individuals who required rescue.”

St. Bernard’s charism lives on and, based on the need, a new breed of dogs was created after him.

“St. Bernard dogs used to find lost skiers and hikers in the Alps,” shared Father Cline.

“Over the centuries, they saved hundreds of lives,” expounded Kalinowski, “One St. Bernard dog in the 1800s named Barry was credited with saving at least 40 lives patrolling that region.”

Kalinowski explained their patron’s legacy. He was “an incredibly benevolent, caring, compassionate individual.” St. Bernard was renowned for miracles.

Kalinowski stated that there are “stories of his generosity. He lived a very simple life in trying to assist other people. We don’t know what kind of profound impact he had. He just spent time out in the wilderness helping people, he spent his entire life (and the vast majority of his 42 years as a priest) making things easier for travelers and never hesitated to explore new routes to high plateaus and valleys when he heard they were in need of a priest.”

Although little is known about his life, St. Bernard is sometimes called St. Bernard of Menthon or Aosta.

“As a young man, Bernard was reported to have had spiritual ties to the Aosta, Italy region, and was ordained a priest in that Diocese,” said Kalinowski.

Due to his natural and spiritual gifts, St. Bernard was “appointed the Vicar-General, comparable to an auxiliary bishop, of the diocese of Aosta only several years after becoming a priest,” Kalinowski described further. “In this position, he began to travel throughout the Diocese, especially in the northern-most aread of the Alps. Eventually, the lure of hiking across the alpine terrain to new areas, while carrying the message of Jesus and the principles of Christianity to communities where other missionary priests had been unsuccessful, brought St. Bernard to places well outside his Diocese.” He traveled to several dioceses in Italy and Switzerland.

St. Bernard’s feast is June 15.

“Let’s celebrate our patron saint,” enthused Kalinowski. “We decided to raise a little awareness of our own patron saint. Hopefully the portrait of St. Bernard will be done and as part of the celebration we will unveil a rendering of our patron saint who is always present to intercede with God on our behalf.”

“What little we do know about St. Bernard is worth celebrating,” concluded Waickman, “and that he’s our guy.”

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