Bernard was born about 1020, probably in the Château de Menthon, near Annecy, then in the County of Savoy, a part of the Kingdom of Arles. He was descended from a rich and noble family and received a thorough education. When he had reached adulthood, he decided to devote himself to the service of the Church and refused an honourable marriage proposed by his father. In popular legend it is said that he had to sneak out of the castle on the night before an arranged wedding, and that during his flight from the castle, he threw himself from his window, only to be captured by angels and lowered gently to the ground 40 feet (12 meters) below.
Placing himself under the direction of Peter, the Archdeacon of Aosta, under whose guidance he rapidly progressed, Bernard was ordained a priest. Later, on account of his learning and virtue, he was appointed to succeed his mentor as archdeacon of the cathedral, giving him the charge of the government of the diocese, directly under the bishop.
Seeing the old pagan ways still prevailing among the people of the Alps, Bernard resolved to devote himself to their conversion. For 42 years he continued to preach the Gospel to these people and even into many cantons of Lombardy, effecting numerous conversions and working many miracles.
For another reason, however, Bernard's name will forever be famous in history. Since the most ancient times there has been a path across the Pennine Alps leading from the Aosta Valley to the Swiss canton of Valais. The traditional route of this pass is covered with perpetual snow from seven to eight feet deep, and drifts sometimes accumulate to the height of forty feet. Although the pass was extremely dangerous, especially in the springtime on account of avalanches, it was often used by French and German pilgrims on their way to Rome.
In his office as archdeacon, Bernard had the charge of caring for the poor and travelers. For their convenience and protection, Bernard founded a canonry and hospice at the highest point of the pass, 8,000 feet above sea-level, in the year 1050, at the site which has came to bear his name. A few years later he established another hospice on the Little St. Bernard Pass, a mountain saddle in the Graian Alps, 7,076 feet above sea-level. Both were placed in charge of communities of canons regular, after papal approval had been obtained by Bernard during a visit to Rome. The new community was placed under the patronage of St. Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of travelers. The last act of St. Bernard's life was the reconciliation of two noblemen whose strife threatened a fatal outcome. He died in June 1081 in the Imperial Free City of Novara and was interred in the monastery of St. Lawrence.