Rennes, today called Rennes-le-Château to distinguish it from Rennes-les-Bains, a small spa located 4 km away and formerly known as Bains-de-Rennes, is a mediocre town seated on the crest of a plateau which dominates the valley of the Aude, on the right of the road going up from Carcassonne to Quillan. The village is now half-covered with ruins. The remains of ancient fortifications can be clearly distinguished and it is easy to see that, because of its elevated position and its natural obstacles that make it difficult to approach, it has played a military role in the past. It is presumed - the discovery of skeletons piled up in various places, near the village and on the plateau makes it likely - that Rennes has always been inhabited, before the Romans came to Gaul.
Rennes had in 1709 about 200 inhabitants. It did not count much more in 1750. The population has steadily increased since then, reaching 450 inhabitants in 1850. It then slowly declined to fall in 1901 to the figure of 217 inhabitants. The depopulation phenomenon that marked the first half of the twentieth century occurred here in all its intensity: 103 inhabitants in 1946. It is doubtful that at this time Rennes has 100 inhabitants, because the electoral lists currently mention only 76 registered. In ten to fifteen years this country will be almost deserted.
When, on June 1, 1885, the parish priest Bérenger Saunière was appointed to Rennes, the village certainly had 300 inhabitants. Then aged 33, this priest came from a small village in the Pays de Sault, in the Pyrenees, Clat, near the Ariège. He was born in Montazels, a commune of Couiza, in the Valley of the Aude, 5 km from Rennes, April 11, 1852. He was a young country priest, tall, strongly built: a farmer. He was considered intelligent and modest. Nothing abnormal had appeared in his behavior.
The only anomaly, he had intervened - from the pulpit - during the elections of the spring of 1885 saying: "The elections of October 4th have already given great results: the victory is not complete yet ... The moment is solemn and must be to use all our strength against our adversaries: we must vote and well. Women need to enlighten poorly educated voters to identify them as advocates of religion. May the 18th of October become for us a day of deliverance ... " (*). These remarks were reported to the Prefecture for them to refer on to the Minister of Cults. The Bishop over-seeing Saunière [Billard] was questioned on the veracity of this fact, & having answered by confession and refusing to remove the priest, the prefect concluded a suspension of employment on April 1, 1886 (*) . Saunière subsequently showing redress, the punishment lasted only a few months.
Bérenger Saunière succeeded Antoine Croc, 64, and before him Charles Eugène Mocquin aged 45, priests we know little about. When he arrived, he found the church in the saddest state. The interior was dilapidated, partly ruined, the exterior degraded. The bell-tower threatened ruin, the vault was cracked, it was raining on to the high altar. Following the steps of his predecessors, Saunière tried to obtain financial assistance to repair the monument.
It was in 1888 that repairs began. From this moment, we notice in the deliberations of the local council (Arch Aude, V-88) that Saunière begins repairs [using?] a sum of 518 francs. So the priest personally had money. However, he had never had extensive resources, and it remains doubtful that the amount of savings he could have made in Rennes on his salary amounted to much - and in his case which reaches - in two and a half years - more than 500 francs, an amount raised up to that time. But this is not the only to or least important of all things by which Abbé Saunière will stand out.
The repairs concern, among others, the high altar. The church of Rennes, & its actual buildings seem very old if we believe a report of the diocesan architect M. Cals, Carcassonne (Arch Aude, O-Rennes series) *. It had a primitive altar, made of a stone table supported in front by two square pillars, one of which bore archaic sculptures *. It appears - several witnesses still exist, and they are adamant - when loosening the entablature, one of them discovered a cavity filled with dry ferns, in the middle of which one could distinguish two or three rollers. It was parchments which the priest seized. He [the priest] stated - it is a witness who tells us - that Saunière read them and said he would translate them if he could . The mayor, informed of the fact, asked the parish priest for the translation; Sauniere confided to him shortly after a written translation in his own hand. The translated text related, it seems, to the construction of the church and the altar. We do not know what has become of the document.
Saunière also dug up the slabs that paved the church and searched the ground beneath. There are witnesses to this fact, including an old man who was then a child and followed the catechism.
A sister-in-law of the cure's maid, who still lives, does not conceal the fact that when repairing the church, the priest found a pot (an oule, Languedoc term, meaning a kind of cauldron or handless earthen pot] filled with gold coins. This fact seems very possible to me because it is normal that the unfortunate predecessor of Saunière, the abbot Antoine Bigou, an old man of 70 years, who was forced to cross the Spanish border in September 1792 buried there his wealth, at the same time as the objects of worship that he wanted to avoid being missed in future inventories. This is obviously a hypothesis, but my research on Rennes in the seventeenth century and during the revolutionary period allows me to state this. However, it was not a treasure in the common sense of the word, but a mere hoard.
Anyway, from this moment (the period from 1888 to 1890), the priest will have many great expenses, and surprising liberalities.
June 21, 1891, great solemnity befalls Rennes on the occasion of the first communion. The parish priest has a statue of the Virgin, which he calls Our Lady of Lourdes, and has one of the two pillars (*) that supported the high altar support this statue in the garden of the church. As the sculptures covering this loot is half-erased [?the dalle de chevalliers], the priest of Rennes had entrusted a craftsman from Couiza with the task of deepening them with a chisel. The result was not very good, as one can judge. But the priest was not content to acquire this site that he dedicated to the Virgin, and which was a triangular piece of ground where the faithful used to sit at the end of the offices. It is, if you will, a semblance of public place. He asked the municipal council for permission to use this land, to have it fenced at his own expense, to erect religious monuments ... On February 15, 1891, the municipal council received the priest's request and, refusing to alienate the land which is and remains communal, by forbidding the parish priest to build there declares: l) that the place, although closed by the expenses of the parish priest, confers him (sic) no right, nor was he or his successors, to the grounds and they remain communal property; whoever wants to will have the right to enter the enclosure either to visit the monuments that will be raised there, or to go to the cemetery; 2) that all the gates which he will make as different entrances to this place will have keys provided one of which will be deposited in to the hands of the mayor or his delegate; 3) that the place, once fenced will remain open on Sundays and holidays as well as feast days, either communal and even national, from sunrise to sunset (Arch Aude, O-Rennes series).
In the meantime, the incidents of July, 1895, broke out. The parish priest had built a small garden, he had adorned it with calcareous concretions that he had been looking for in caves in the vicinity of the village. But, overriding the opinion of the municipal council, he had had a small edifice erected at an angle joining the cemetery, which was explicitly forbidden to him. The municipal authority having not protested, the cure had installed in the cottage his library and his study. The building was elevated above the level of the garden and, according to custom, in this water-free country, the ground had been dug below the building to form a large cavity, it was a cistern.
However, on July 14, 1895, a fire of unheard-of violence ravaged two or three buildings near the church. They were attic rooms, surrounded by barns filled with hay. It was feared that fire would spread easily to the whole neighbourhood. The firefighters ran to the priest's cistern to take water. The priest, who had the only key, refused them entry. It was necessary to penetrate forcibly into the cottage. The next day, the priest went to the gendarmerie in Couiza and filed a complaint in violation of domicile.
It was too much. The municipal council took a new deliberation on the 20th of July. The priest was ordered to reinstate the presbytery and to install his study and library elsewhere. The room would remain closed and would serve to store the vases of the parterre. As for the exits from the fenced public square, they would no longer be locked, even during the night. The priest obeyed.
Shortly before, he had brought claims to the prefectural authority from many of his fellow citizens. The Abbé Saunière shut himself up at night in the cemetery and proceeded to commence strange upheavals there. In fact, here is the text of the two petitions that have been preserved. and that we reproduce without changing a word:
March 12, 1895
We have the honor to inform you that with the agreement of the municipal council of Rennes-le-Château, at the meeting which took place Sunday, March 10, 1895 at 1 o'clock in the afternoon in the hall of the town hall We, the electors, protest that at their decision the said work which gives the priest the right to continue is of no use and that we join in support of the first complaint our desire to be free and masters of healing. each one of the tombs of our predecessors who rest there and that the cure does not have the right that after we made embellishments or placed crosses and crowns, that everything is removed, stirred, raised or changed in a corner.
And this one, of a still more picturesque language:
March 14, 1895
We are not at all happy that the cemetery is working mainly under the conditions it has been so far; if there are crosses, they are removed, stones on the tombs too, and at the same time this work does not consist of repairs or anything.
(Arch Aude, O-Rennes series)
So Father Saunière was told to stop interfering in the cemetery. But what was he doing there? Why did he upset the graves? Mystery.
He did, however, pay for the restoration of the cemetery He built a fence wall, and the sketch of an ossuary he has not yet completed. Between September and November 1897, we find an indication of his expenses in what remains of the accounts he has left.
At the same time, the great repairs to the church were completed. The vault was redone and painted between the 1st of November, 1896, and the end of April, 1897. The priest paid for all of this. The cure lived in the presbytery, which he had also repaired. But he wanted to build other vast buildings. In the course of the year 1900, he acquired from several people undeveloped land located south of the church and presbytery, on the edge of the plateau. At the same time, he bought old, partly ruined barns, bordering the street, and facing the courtyard of the presbytery to the east. But - it should be pointed out - Father Saunière did not acquire these lands in his name: he bought them on behalf of various people, including his servant, Marie Dénarnaud, a native of Couiza, twenty years younger than him on behalf of their parents, on behalf of various persons in their relationships. And in 1901, he began, on the site of the barns to build a stone "villa" of questionable taste, which he called Villa Bethany, Renaissance style. On the other side of the street, on a vast lot, he drew a garden, built greenhouses and sheds.
That's not all.
Between the edge of the rocky plateau, which had formerly supported fortifications, and the boundary of the cemetery and the church, the cure now possessed a large expanse of uneven ground strewn with rocky growths here and there. He had it all backfilled. He poured tons and tons of soft earth on to it and packed it. Then the priest undertook the main work. He redid the old wall of the village following the rounded corner of the plateau, a wall of great thickness, hollow and containing vast cisterns. At each end, a tower; one modest, not exceeding the level of the rampart and surmounted by a glass roof in the shape of belvedere-the other, two floors above the rampart, provided with crenels and a watch-tower. All with double access staircase. This is the so-called Magdala tower. And over the entire space and fenced, he created gardens.
He set up his study and library in this two-storey tower, which dominated the country and soon became famous.To enclose his books, he had a furniture dealer in Carcassonne build four corner bookshelves in oak, at the price of 10,000 F, which was arranged in 1908. However, the priest did not live in the villa of Bethany and continued to live in the parsonage which, by an act of March 24, 1907, he had rented to the commune for an annual rental price of 20 francs, and for five years. The lease, which would be tacitly renewed, would be terminated automatically in case of death or removal of the lessee.
He resigned from the post of Rennes on February 1, 1908.
He had taken the precaution of having an altar built in his villa at Bethany where he said his mass.
Was he apprehensive of some coming storm?
The man was unkempt, uneducated - the questionable taste which he displays in his constructions and restorations is ample proof of this - but cunning and strangely positive. He suspected that his strange conduct would at least cause curiosity among many of his colleagues and superiors. What were his resources? Where did they come from? He lived very widely. In his house there was an open table, and after 1900, there was not a week to go by when he received guests lavishly. His relations with Emma Calvet, of the Opera, a native of Aveyron, who came to see him at Rennes, were mentioned; with local politicians, Dujardin-Beaumetz, born in 1852, general councilor of Limoux, deputy of the Aude without interruption since 1889, who was to be secretary of state in the fine arts. Others less known, local or regional leaders of the Radical-Socialist party, already very powerful in the Aude. With notables, industrialists, merchants, Saunière had no social prejudices. He also treated the workers well who came to Rennes to work on his behalf. Notably, as soon as they arrived in the morning and at lunchtime, they lunched at home copiously; they worked with joy in Rennes. Saunière kept a journal of the order of the works, and some leaves of his registers remain. I could see them. Thus they sought the invitations of the priest of Rennes. Some of his colleagues had been in the habit of coming to see him often, and even to stay at his home. Marie Denarnaud was, without a doubt, an incomparable cook.
At his place was a remarkable wine cellar, known throughout the county. The walls of the cellar were lined with lockers. When, in any county, a famous year was mentioned for a vintage, the priest ordered some bottles. So we could see a bin containing five or six liters with the handwritten label: Tokay of year X ... Each bottle cost me X ... F. He used to drink a lot of rum. He ate well and drank dry.
Already, at the end of the year 1899, the cure Saunière had been proposed by the ordinary folk to be approved for the prefect post. The proposal entailed, as was then the rule, an administrative inquiry conducted by the sub-prefect of Limoux. On October 16, 1899, this official answered the prefect : "Father Saunière is in a wealthy situation. He has no family responsibilities. His behaviour is good. He professes anti-government views. Attitude: militant reactionary. Unfavourable opinion. (Arch Aude) Father Saunière was not named. But it is not certain that he wished to leave Rennes.
His political behaviour in 1899 belies the relationship he will have five or six years later with leftists at the height of the crisis when it comes to the separation of church and the state. I believe that it is necessary to explain this anomaly not by a change of attitude, but by the effect of the diplomacy and the know-how of the priest of Rennes, master of ability. In all that has been discussed so far, criticism can only identify anomalies. However, there is one side by which the Abbe Saunière could rightly incur reproaches.
It had been remarked, and it was known that the priest was absent frequently, and for several days without the permission of the church hierarchy he calculated before leaving the quality of the persons who could write to him, and he prepared in advance letters to answer them. There were some for the bishop, for the chancellor of the bishopric, for the vicar general, for parish priests his colleagues. And except for the formulas that could vary, they were so conceived. For example:
Rennes-le-Chateau, the ...
I have read with the humblest respect the letter which you write to me, and to which I pay the most indirect attention. Believe that the interest of the question you raised does not escape me, but it deserves reflection. Also, suffer that, taken by an urgent occupation, I give an answer in a few days.
I beg you to deign to accept, Monseigneur, etc.
Invariably, when the priest of Rennes took the railway, from the station of Couiza, he took the same direction: Perpignan. Several witnesses attest to it. It is permissible to think that in this city and out of the diocese he had his interests. It is unfortunate that the remoteness of these facts no longer allows us to know which bank he was addressing.
In addition, at certain periods, the priest of Rennes received daily a large quantity of orders, - up to 100 and 150F a day - carrying small sums ranging from 5 to 40F. Money orders were paid to him at his home in Rennes. Many others were addressed to him at the Post Office where he was going to cash them. One of the recipients who paid him was still alive. These mandates were of very diverse origin. Most of them came from France; but many also from Rhineland, Switzerland, Northern Italy. Some, as evidenced by a fragment of the register, came from religious communities. These mandates represented mass intentions.
Father Saunière trafficked Mass.
As long as Bishop Félix-Arsène BILLARD was at the head of the diocese, no one asked Fr. Saunière for explanations. But when Bishop de Beauséjour had replaced Bishop BILLARD, it was otherwise. The attention of the bishopric was attracted by letters from private persons, who asked if they could trust Father Sauniere, and entrust him with the intentions of masses. The fact was not new and already, under the authority of Bishop BILLARD, the parish priest at Rennes had been forbidden to beg for Mass intentions outside the diocese. However, inquiries were still coming, while, on the other hand, the buildings of the priest of Rennes and his lavish life - in any case far above his recognized means - provoked, in the clergy and up to the head - these comments. Bishop Beauséjour therefore asked via his agent for a justification of his resources. Saunière replied with vague and dilatory remarks, from which it was concluded that he had no intention of revealing them. A discussion ensued, one way, because the bishop was the only one to speak. Saunière had become deaf. Monsignor de Beauséjour also appointed Saunière to a cure in the Corbières at Coustouges. Sauniere went to visit the cure, seemed to accept and suddenly wrote to his bishop a letter in which he said in substance:
"Monseigneur, I read your letter with the utmost respect and I became aware of the intentions of which you have you want to send me a message? But if our religion commands us to consider our spiritual interests above all, and if these are assuredly up there, it does not order us to neglect our material interests, which are here below. And mine are in Rennes and not elsewhere. I declare it to you, no, my lord, I will never leave. "
Sauniere, therefore, refused to leave Rennes, in terms which seem surprising and which tend to upset our accepted ideas of ecclesiastical discipline. Be that as it may, he was guilty of rebellion against his bishop. It was too much. Bishop Beauséjour could not, of course, let his authority slip. On May 27, 1910, Saunière was brought before the Officiality of the Diocese for having continued, despite orders received from the bishop and the promises made to him, to stop asking for masses outside the diocese. Called to appear on July 16th, Saunière does not show up. Summoned on the 23rd, he did not attend. On the 23rd, judged by default, the Officiality pronounces a sentence condemning him for mass trafficking, exaggerated and unjustified expenses which seem to have been spent from the fees of paid masses, disobedience to his bishop. His was suspended, a suspense to divines, of a duration of one month and told he must pay back the fees.
But Saunière having obtained from the bishop the restitutio causae in integrum, is quoted again on August 23rd. He designates as lawyer Maitre Mis, of the Limoux bar, then the doctor canon Huguet, parish priest of Espiens, in the diocese of Agen. On October 15th, on referral, Saunière, who did not go to the court, is represented by the canon Huguet. On November 5th, the sentence required that Saunière go to a retirement home for ten days and engage in spiritual exercises, that he report to his bishop within one month and that he provide disclosure of the exact amounts he has indicated in his defense.
On December 30th, noting that the time has elapsed without Saunière's appearing, the Officials summons him to appear before the bishop on January 9th, 1911 with his accounts. But Saunière wrote to Rome to ask to be reinstated as the cure of Rennes, which he voluntarily renounced in 1909 by written decision. He asks for delays. He was not able to make the retreat that was ordered, his state of health does not allow him to carry out the prescribed exercises; more than that, he is in such a condition that he can not bear any emotion. He is imperatively enjoined to present his accounts by mail, by post or otherwise, if he can not personally present himself. He is summoned again before the Officiality for having evaded the sentence of November 5th, 1910.
Saunière then attacks the courts.
But on December 5th, the sentence is rendered by default: he is found guilty of squandering and misappropriation of funds of which he was a depositary, sentenced to a suspense of divinis of three months, and in any case until he has made the return of misappropriated amounts, all in absentia and without appeal.
The Religious Week and the newspaper Éclair de Montpellier published at that date a communiqué informing the faithful that Saunière no longer has the right to say Mass from December 5th, 1910. He is deprived of his priestly functions.
In his defense, the accused provided an explicit document. Here it is:
1. Purchase of the land 1.550F
2. Restoration of the church 16.200F
3. Calvary 11.200F
4. Villa Bethany 90,000F
5. Terrace, gardens 19.050F
6. Mandala Tower 40,000F
7. Planning everything 5,000F
8. Furnishing 10,000F
This is a huge sum at this time.
As for the questions that were asked of the priest of Rennes by the Officials and of which we do not have the statements or copies of the questions, we do have the answers of the priest of Rennes:
1) Twenty years ago, I took home a family composed of father, mother and two children. The father and the mother earned 300 francs a month. Our funds were pooled.From there a sum saved of 52,000 francs. The family belonged to the hat industry
2) The trunk was intended for visitors who, after having heard my explanations on Rennes and accepted my courtesies, rewarded my complacency with an alms which, in the end, was a tip. As the bathers of Rennes-les-Bains were numerous, this explains their generosity.
3) Give some date for the lottery.
4) My brother being a preacher had many relationships. He served as an intermediary for these generosities. Give dates, if you can, exact or not.
5) The postcards are views of Rennes-le-Château. There are 31. All bathers take the complete collection, that is 3, 10F for each. These cards are so successful that I can scarcely furnish them. These cards are new and my property.
6) My collection of old stamps amounts to 100,000. It is complete and, for sale, I deny consistent with the prices adopted. The amateurs, very happy to provide themselves, never bargain.
7) The old furniture, earthenware and fabrics are the result of my excavations in the country -side [translators note; interestingly this word can also mean village]. The sale compensates me for my research and my climbing/trekking [translators note - 'course' could also mean journey or trip].
8) Tapes and copies, I have them made by young people, on behalf of newspapers and leaflets. They are satisfied with the price I offer them and I still have an advantage over them.
9) Why would not I include free transportation and my personal work in my costs? Was not it a real economy for me?
This document was certainly a draft response to the Official for Canon Huguet, the defendant's lawyer. It is doubtful that he mentioned it at the trial. He could use it, it seems to us, only as an aide-mémoire.
What happened to the priest of Rennes?
Bérenger Saunière knows that he will be banned. As a result, he fears a decrease in his income and he does not conceal this apprehension in his letters to Canon Huguet, his lawyer, or his friends. From the beginning of November 1911, Saunière plans to sell what he owns in Rennes and retire to a more modest retreat at a lower cost. "In my native place, i wrote him on that date the Canon Huguet 1 km from the station, one of our great singers, Jerome, had made folly for an installation. A cold cut the whistle. He is speechless, he has a modest business in Paris. He wants to sell his establishment. We are talking about a dozen thousand francs, and the installation is worth sixty. In the hypothesis, you will draw the reverence in Carcassonne and I will patronize you near my bishop and you would live quiet in this splendid situation. Sell and then we'll see what you can do ... "
On November 27, the parish priest contacted the Petitjean bank, headquartered in Paris. "We can only regret your decision," he wrote from the head office, "regarding the preliminary costs. We will still take care of your business by using our personal means, the conditions that you offer us, but we doubt very much to succeed. In fact, the bank sent to Rennes one of their attendants, M. de Bauviere, stationed at Agen. On November 29th he wrote to Father Saunière: "I can only confirm our conditions. The bank Petitjean customary to lay down its conditions. It is a fairly old house and known to know what it has to offer, and never accept counterproposal of its customers. You are the only judge on your side of what you have to do. For me, personally, I do not have to worry about anything outside the bank. No customer would be able to compensate me for what I would lose if I accepted to do business outside the home. It is first of all a simple question of honesty and then and especially my interest. No need to count on my help, it's unfortunate and especially for you. "
One guesses that Saunière had asked the attorney of the bank Petitjean to treat the sale of his goods on his behalf, without mixing the bank, of course promising a substantial commission. But the Sieur de Bauviere was careful. The case remained there.
In October 1912, understanding that he would not buy Rennes, Saunière is looking for another way to get money. He speaks to his former lawyer, Canon Huguet, and asks him what steps to follow to get in touch with the Crédit Foncier : "I understand ," says Canon Huguet, " your desire to avoid the pecuniary worries that result from your situation. You must have advanced the question, if it is not already concluded. But, as I had explained to you, you received the visit of a delegate of the Credit in order to estimate the building and establish its market value. God grant that you have succeeded ... " And a few days later, Canon Huguet adds :" I wish that Crédit Foncier is accommodating and give you a grant/ loan advantageous. It all depends largely on the relationship that is made. The amount of the loan was scarcely high, because on January 31, 1913, Canon Huguet wrote to Father Saunière: "I found in your letter such a feeling of discouragement that I was anxious to go back a little bit. re mind. I guess the disappointment you must have felt when you learned that Crédit Foncier only gave you so little money in return for the guarantees you offered. Knowing the habits of this society, I come to the conclusion that the inspector who came to your home did not have to write an enthusiastic and convincing report on the situation you presented to him. It is to be hoped that you will have the good fortune to find some buyer who will dress your building and that the selling price will compensate you for the considerable sums spent on your villa. No doubt you need rents to live up there, but an amateur who will embark on this affair will surely have, and he will have on this summit a charming residence. "
We know that the Abbé Saunière never sold his buildings and that he remained there, embarrassed, perhaps needy, now without means to obtain money.
He even had debts.
At the time of his prosperity, when he ordered a commodity, he paid a deposit and signed bills for the balance. But none of these bills exceeded the sum of 500 francs. He was careful to stagger them in order to distribute the installments in proportion to his inflow of funds. This fact leads us to believe that the traffic of masses produced a regular income and that the abbot knew perfectly well how far he could go. When the sentence of the Officiality put an end to his industry forever, drafts remained in circulation. We can cite those he had launched as payment for his library, commissioned in 1908 from M. Noubel, a furniture merchant in Carcassonne, and delivered a few months later. From 1911, the abbé Saunière stopped paying the drafts subscribed, and the balance of his account was never settled.
At the time of the declaration of war, August 2nd, 1914, the aura of the priest of Rennes was frankly bad. Dr. Espezel, of Couiza, proclaimed in the streets of the little city and elsewhere, urbi and orbi, that Sauniere was an intelligence agent to the pledges of the Central Empires, a sort of spy of Germany! He added, - which seems to us ridiculous today, but which at that time seemed plausible to many, for spying was rife even in our regions, - that the terraces built at Rennes had not been made so wide. only to support artillery pieces! People remembered a person having come to Rennes, whom they called the stranger, and who is said to have been an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, a subject of Francis Joseph ...
The time of splendor was forever past. Saunière was ageing in his domain, surrounded by the care of his servant Marie Denarnaud, still young and pretty. One afternoon in January 1917, in his study at the Magdala Tower, he was struck by an attack. Informed at once, his confrere, the priest of Esperaza, an old man who had nothing but cold relations with Sauniere, went up to Rennes to bring the last sacraments to the unfortunate. He found Saunière very poorly, but lucid and able to speak. He received his confession. A few hours later, Saunière passed away (*).
The priest of Esperaza was the only one to know the secret. Never a word came out of his mouth that could put others on the path of truth. But, - we have these details of a priest - the auxiliaries and friends of the priest of Esperaza noticed that from that day, the old priest was no longer the same man, he had obviously received a shock.
For a long time Marie Dénarnaud lived in the presbytery and in the villa Bethany. Three months after the death of the parish priest, she had renewed in her name the lease which passed between Saunière and the commune: she was now renter for nine years of the presbytery of Rennes, at the rental price of 50 F per year. According to the testament that we know, it was substituted for the priest of Rennes in all the goods of this one: Furniture and buildings. Saunière had given her everything without making an inventory, to which, he wrote , "I absolutely want to remove my sole legatee" (1912). Interest continued to accrue on the sum lent by Crédit Foncier. Receipts prove it (those we saw date back to 1935). Marie Dénarnaud lived embarrassingly. She had to answer to the creditors who came to ask for the payment of bills in arrears or left overdue. She paid some of them with symbolic amounts (50 F, 100 F). Then, they stopped persecuting her. It is true that, pressed by necessity, she sold many objects; she let others carry them away. It is true that the collections of the priest Saunière were looted. It was probably by a life annuity that she sold her property to the current owners of Villa Bethany, in 1947 that she continued to survive. She died in 1953, at an advanced age.
What is one to think of this extraordinary story? What man was, in fact, the priest of Rennes?
It was said, of course, that he had found a treasure. For centuries there existed in the county a tenacious legend which Labouisse-Rochefort, in his Voyage to Rennes-les-Bains, had written about in 1803, & gives us the most authentic version. This legend reappeared in another form, and moved from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Chateau. This was the favour of the priest of Rennes, since he was thus setting up the screen in the shelter of which he could pursue in all tranquility his actions. He did what he could to maintain the legend and fortify it. It was gold kept by the Devil. Well, he had a devil carved, mouth open, wings outspread, with bright eyes, which he placed at the entrance of his church to support a holy water font. He inspired a superstitious fear. It was not difficult, in a county, famous since the seventeenth century to indulge in witchcraft, and magic. This reputation has not disappeared. It is well founded.
I do not think that the priest of Rennes was as black as it is said, or implied. And, to look well, to read between the lines, we discover the essential, the explanation of the mystery. At least the outline. Mass traffic? He confessed it. There is no question about it. But - to return to Bishop Beauséjour's remarks - this traffic, whatever its importance, has not produced sufficient sums to enable Sauniere to build such constructions and, at the same time, to live as lavishly as possible. So there was something else.
But then again, the priest wrote about it. It is found in his drafts of memoirs in his defense, which were never produced, in the letters written to him at the time of his trial by other priests, his friends, who knew them.
The priest of Rennes received donations. How could he provoke people to send them?
He tells us himself in the aide-mémoire that he intended for Canon Huguet, his lawyer, at the time of the trial. Let's go back to the text: "My brother," he wrote , "being a preacher, had many connections. He served as an intermediary for these generosities". Indeed, we never speak of the brother of the priest of Rennes, Father Alfred Saunière. He too was a curious character. Born in 1855, and three years younger than his eldest, he had a good education and was appointed vicar at Alzonne, near Carcassonne, on July 1st, 1878. From 1879 to 1893, he taught in establishments belonging to the Society of Jesus, without having himself adhered to the order. In 1893, he was professor at the Petit Séminaire de Narbonne and became, in 1897, chaplain of the patronage of this city. Specialist preacher, he went out a lot, and traveled. He too had a taste for business. At the time of the death of his parents, at Montazels, it falls to him to look after the family. But the property [?family home] was sold because Alfred had done bad business. The unfortunate man had the habit of buying right and wrong. He paid if he could. He also led an immoral life. And these were two reasons that led to his ban. Sick, retired to his native house - bought by his sister - in 1904, alcoholic, he died on September 9th, 1905.
Is it through him that the priest of Rennes was put in touch with his or her donors? There is every reason to believe it. If these gifts were not numerous, they were abundant or substantial. At the time of his trial, Bérenger Saunière wrote: "Monseigneur absolutely wants to know the source, the origin of all the money that has been used for these constructions. He is anxious to know the names of the people who gave it to me, the sums they entrusted to me, and the Latin for which, for the benefit of these people, this money was given to me. He wants me to give him a book of accounts of my work with the details of the receipts and expenses. However, this book he claims does not exist. I have only a few receipts or insignificant receipts left, and on the assumption that this book would exist, I do not think I ought in conscience to put it in his hands. It can not oblige me either to divulge the names of my donors, because to identify them without being authorized, would expose myself to cause trouble in certain families or households whose members gave me, some secretly from their husbands, others from their children or their heirs. "
At the same time, Abbé Gayet, brother and friend of Saunière, wrote to the latter : "There, before this court, you will know the charges and you will defend your best. You will tell your judges that the conscience does not reproach you for anything and that, for reasons of major importance, you can not divulge the names of your donors. You will tell them that they are ready to reveal them to Monseigneur, but only in the secrecy of the confession.(February 12, 1910).
I am convinced that Father Saunière did not lie, and that, as it is both logical and plausible, the gifts he received have alone enabled him to carry out so many enterprises. There is nothing in his extraordinary story but a mystery. A mystery that will probably never be elucidated. What is the source of these donations?
The main source is related to this stranger, this German who came to see him several times in Rennes. A highly titled character, it was said. But who was he? Will we ever know? And will we ever know in what intention this individual has given him so much money? A hypothesis: The priest of Rennes had received money, but not as a charitable foundation. He was serving one or more persons who, mixed up in their country with reprehensible acts, or, more likely, with political intrigues, feared, if these acts or intrigues were discovered, to have to expatriate themselves. By chance, probably Alfred Saunière, put them in touch with the priest of Rennes. And they imagined to be built by people interposed, far from home, in a lost country, a solitary retreat, ignored and close to a border. To this the priest of Rennes had great advantage. He used money to repair his church, rebuild his cemetery, satisfy some fancies. But, knowing that this would not always last, he had patiently created, with the help of his brother, all the traffic of masses destined to assure him, with time, a sufficient ease. Around 1900, we can think, watering was finished. But if an accidental circumstance - the death of the principal concerned - has made the parish priest of Rennes completely free from his obligations, does it not seem natural that he should have personally benefited from all that he had originally had? And that he gave free rein to his architectural fantasies? Once spent for such purposes, the sums he had received exhausted, his only resource remained his mass trafficking; He lived lavishely until the day when the late but normal curiosity of his bishop interrupted this enterprise.
He became a forbidden priest, he no longer had the means to maintain his estate, to support the inherent costs. He tried to sell, but could not do it. He borrowed and greatly reduced his lifestyle. But his behaviour is not that of a man who had found a treasure and exploited it.The treasure of Rennes does not exist. But the secret of the priest of Rennes remains. And it is with him that the mystery lies.
René Descadeillas (1909-1986)
Curator of the Carcassonne Library and; Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Carcassonne.