World of tranquillity

The Augustinian canons at the Great St Bernard Pass are snowed in for eight months every winter – but they are not alone.

“You have to like the snow and the mountains,” the Augustinian canon Jean-Michel Lonfat says with a smile, “to live up here the whole year.” In winter, the front door of the hospice is often completely hidden: 14.5 metres of snow fell last season. Then there are the avalanches that thunder down the surrounding slopes, time and again. And the winds that never stop blowing, which once reached a speed of 268 kilometres an hour over the pass, breaking all records.  During ten days in January, it was too dangerous to set foot outside the building, such was the fury of the elements.

The hospice lies 2,473 metres above sea level at the summit of the Great St Bernard Pass, which links Valais with the Aosta valley in Italy. The pass takes its name from Bernard of Menthon, archdeacon of Aosta. He founded the hospice in 1050 to provide shelter for people travelling through this inhospitable region, in which they braved cold weather, treacherous conditions – and bandits.

The hospice is still run by canons of the order of St Augustine, whose Latin motto is: “Hic Christus adoratur et pascitur” – Here Christ is worshipped and fed. The religious community consists of four people who live in the hospice all year: the canons Jean-Michel Lonfat (64 years old, priest), Raphaël Duchoud (53, priest) and Frédéric Gaillard (53, deacon) along with Anne-Marie Maillard, aged 59. She belongs to the community as an oblate: a lay person who lives according to the order’s rules. Lonfat is the prior, in other words the head of the hospice. This winter will be his ninth up here.

Pastori dell'Ospizio San Bernardo . Vallese, Svizzera
Praying according to the Rule of St Augustine: (from left) Jean-Michel Lonfat, Frédéric Gaillard, Raphaël Duchoud and Anne-Marie Maillard in the crypt.

This year, like every year, the road over the Great St Bernard Pass was closed again in mid-October: down in Bourg-Saint-Pierre on the Valais side and in Saint-Rhémy in Italy. The hospice will remain cut off from the world until the end of May – nearly eight months. However, the residents are not alone: last winter season, the canons and their helpers hosted 6,000 overnight stays. The visitors, who are mostly from Switzerland, come on touring skis or snowshoes – the only way up.

The ascent is taxing: about 2½ hours’ climb from the car park by the tunnel entrance on the Valais side. Poles, put in place by the canons, mark the route. As Frédéric Gaillard explains, “We recommend that visitors check snow conditions and avalanche risk before setting off.” Reservations at the hospice are compulsory: the canons need to know in advance how many guests to expect during the course of the day, for safety reasons. In bad weather conditions, powerful spotlights at the top of the pass show the way.

At the beginning of October, the stores in the hospice are refilled: a ton each of frozen bread, potatoes, meat and fish. The oil tanks for the heating, totalling 70,000 litres, are topped up. During the winter, staff bake crispy bread in the wood-fired oven. “Many visitors bring fresh vegetables, fruit or a couple of baguettes,” the prior says. Before Easter, a helicopter flies in with fresh food.

Most winter visitors come for a few days. To do ski tours, to have time for quiet contemplation, to linger in the reading room; or to speak with members of the monastic community, to celebrate mass with them in the church and to pray in the crypt. The hospice can accommodate up to 120 guests: in two dormitories (bed & breakfast: 32 CHF), and in six bedrooms each sleeping four.

Even after nearly 1,000 years, the canons up on the Great St Bernard Pass have remained true to their vocation: hospitality. The deacon, Frédéric Gaillard, welcomes each new arrival personally in the dining room. “Whoever you are, whatever your religion: we welcome you warmly, with your joys, your problems and your hopes.” In order to accommodate such a large number of guests, the canons depend on help: an administrator, a laundry manager, a cook and four assistants provide precious support. Timon Stricker, from Olten in the far north of Switzerland, spent the winter of 2015 here as part of his community service. His tasks included shovelling snow, laying tables and repairing frozen water pipes. The spiritual life suits this place well, the 23-year-old says. “The hospice is an oasis of wellbeing. But I also found the isolation scary – even with contact to the outside world via Wi-Fi.”

The prior, Jean-Michel Lonfat, finds the encounters with guests enriching. Twice a month, he heads down to the valley – to visit his family or to see the doctor. When he clips into his skis again for the climb back up, he takes the greatest of care. The last few hundred metres below the hospice lead through the Combe des Morts, the “Valley of the Dead”: in winter 2015, four ski tourers died in an avalanche here. Up at the Great St Bernard, nature is at its harshest, the prior says: rocks, snow and ice all around. “What a contrast to the sense of community that we experience here.”

Anne-Marie Maillard looks forward to the winter, “even though it can be tough. The rhythm of life here does you good.” The oblate heads outside every day: she measures snow depths, wind speed and temperature, photographs avalanches and sends the information to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos and to the relevant authorities in Valais. On particularly stormy days, she decides who may leave the building and who has to stay indoors.

Over a glass of Fendant wine, Prior Jean-Michel Lonfat explains that the effort required to reach the hospice, high in the mountains, adds to the rewards. “It helps calm the mind and achieve inner peace,” he says. He is looking forward to celebrating Christmas together with guests in the crypt. Outside, the snow will be several metres deep; if the night is clear, thousands of stars will be sparkling above the summits.

Text : Thomas Kutscher
Photographs : David Carlier

Published: November 2019

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