GRAND ST. BERNARD, Switzerland, Oct. 5, 2004 — -- The highest church in the world sits 8,000 feet up in the Alps on what was once the most dangerous mountain pass in Europe. Today, climbers and hikers come for the challenge, but for hundreds of years, the monastery of the Grand St. Bernard was a lifesaving refuge from the cold and snow for everyone from local hunters to Napoleon.
In the 1600s, the St. Bernard monks decided they needed help rescuing snowbound travelers. So they bred a burly but reliable dog, which they named after their patron saint. "The St. Bernards were never just a symbol," said Father Hilaire, a monk in the Hospice of the Great St. Bernard. "Before the 1900s, there were no skis, so the dogs made paths even if there were one or two meters of fresh snow. They helped us save lives."
The St. Bernards have saved more than 2,000 lives since the monks started keeping records in 1700. They still tell stories about one dog named Barry who set the record with 41 rescues in the early 1800s.
But today, there are only four monks remaining, and they say they don't have the time or the money to take care of the dogs.
"What is essential is not just the dogs, but primarily the people we receive," said Father Hilaire.
News that the monks are selling the St. Bernards has upset nearby residents. They love the dogs, and consider the animals part of the area's essential character.
"The St. Bernards have always been here," said a local woman named Joelle who helps train them. "I find it sad they're being sold. It's a part of history that's now gone."
The dogs never carried small barrels of brandy to revive climbers; 19th-century artists added that picturesque touch. But St. Bernards were truly talented mountain rescue dogs. Big and strong enough to climb with ease, they could smell victims buried deep under the snow and hear an avalanche long before people could.
The St. Bernards' natural friendliness also had a real function in the mountains. When the dogs came across hikers or skiers stranded in the snow, they would instinctively lie on top of them and lick them to keep them warm. A second dog — they usually worked in pairs — would go search for help.
In recent years, they have gradually relinquished their role as lifesavers, replaced by helicopters and electronic sensors. Today, they are more tourist attractions than heroes. Now, they will become simply expensive pets.
"They're nothing like dogs that live in apartments," said Pierrot Troillet, a nearby resident who works with the dogs. "It's a dog that likes fresh air, the mountains, high altitudes."
The last litter of six puppies — four males and two females — was born at the monastery one month ago. There are thousands of St. Bernards all over the world — it's a very popular breed — but they may never call this place home again.