Patron saint of hikers: St. Bernard’s Catholic Church celebrates 11th-century namesake

Members of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Saranac Lake walk up the slope of the village's Mount Pisgah Ski Area Sunday as the parish celebrated its namesake, St. Bernard of Montjoux, who is the patron saint of hikers. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

SARANAC LAKE — This weekend, St. Bernard’s Catholic Church began what it hopes to be an annual tradition, celebrating its namesake.

The gear of hikers, skiers and climbers was placed on the steps before the altar for Sunday morning Mass. A special blessing was done for hikers, skiers and climbers, and only this year, this weekend, does it make sense for the church to do so. A year ago, it would have seemed bizarre.

There are many St. Bernard churches, but the Catholic parishioners in this village did not learn until recently that theirs is different. The others are named after St. Bernard of Clairvaux, but St. Bernard of Montjoux — the patron saint of hikers, skiers, backpackers and mountaineers, the man who helped build two hostels in the Montjoux mountain pass and the developer of a breed of dog named after him that still helps rescue those lost in the mountains — is whom the Saranac Lake church is named after. It’s one of only two they could find in the U.S. that bear his name. The other is in Fraser, Colorado.

When this came to light, the church decided to participate in his feast day by celebrating it this past weekend. A dinner at Left Bank Cafe was held Saturday night after Mass. Around 50 people attended, according to Deacon Joseph Szwed.

The following day, the blessing of skiers, hikers and mountaineers was held, and later that day, at 4 p.m., a few people joined a hike up Mount Pisgah, followed by a brief prayer service. Excitement brewed while members of the church gathered in the parking lot at the foot of the mountain. Many who had attended for several years said they had been surprised to hear of the uniqueness of their church, and hoped the activities of this weekend continue for years to come.

Mountain equipment such as hiking boots, backpacks, rock climbing gear, skis and snowshoes are placed before the altar of St. Bernard's Catholic Church Sunday to be blessed as the parish honored its patron saint, Bernard of Montjoux. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Next year is supposed to be the 1,000th birthday of St. Bernard of Montjoux, and some hope that something special will be held in his honor in Saranac Lake. It is believed, according to Parish Council President Tom Kalinowski, that Bernard was born in 1020.

Some also hope parishioners will visit Switzerland to see the last of the two remaining hostels that St. Bernard built. For now, though, its all just excited chatter, and they’re content with their newfound identity.

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