In a small village not far from Carcassonne in the Aude, a priest collapses, struck by a possible heart attack, at the age of 65 while he is in the tower that adorns his property. It is his maid, Marie Dénarnaud, who finds him and has him transported to his bed where he will agonize for 5 days before dying on 22nd January. This priest is the famous Bérenger Saunière and this is the end of his life - a life full of tales and strange intrigues, a life, it must be said, which was very strange ...
The small village is Rennes-le-Château - which has around 250 souls and is built on top of a mountainous hill that is approached by climbing a narrow winding road. From the top of this hill, the panorama is splendid. The village, according to Bérenger Saunière, is in fact built on the site of an ancient Visigothic city. He saw fit to mention this on some postcards he had published for the local tourists.
In 1885 Bérenger Saunière arrives, at the age of 33 years, to become the village priest. He was born April 11, 1852 in Montazels, near the village of Rennes. Of an independent nature and overtly rebellious, he seems to have been named priest there by the Catholic hierarchy to apparently rid themselves of such a rebellious man. And what was he rebellious about? It was on the argument of whether the church and French state should be separated - an argument raging at the time - and he was firmly on the side that said no separation should occur which made him a Monarchist.
When he arrived at Rennes-le-Château he found the village isolated & the church dilapidated and the presbytery in a deplorable state. What does it matter, he thinks! Bérenger Saunière settled there and, in order to finance his first repairs of the church, he tried to gather some money.
In 1886, Saunière first received an important gift from the Countess of Chambord, wife of the Legitimist pretender to the throne of France. The same year, he offers Father Grassaud, a priest of Amelie-les-Bains, a chalice in vermeil but does not say more about its provenance. From there, he embarked on a series of spectacular repairs to the church, which he embellished with ostentatious oddities. He inscribed biblical Latin sentences on the pediment of the building and places a devil under the church's holy water font! He then decides to replace the old altar, made of stone which was partially embedded in the back wall of the church and supported on the front by two Carolingian pillars. In July 1887, the workers upturned the top of the two ancient pillars, and in one of them they discover rolls of wood sealed with wax. In them the priest discovers parchments. The town Mayor hears of the find and asks for copies and their alleged reproduction figures in the majority of works relating to Rennes-le-Château.
Shortly after, Saunière decides to remove the slabs of stone tiling in the choir area of the church. A stone slab is found, one of whose faces is adorned with a superb bas-relief representing perhaps two knights on their mounts. Under the same slab his confidante Marie Denarnaud tells a later visitor that bones from a skeleton had been found. Another surprise, behind the altar, still under the slabs, someone discovers a cache filled with money. Later Sauniere discovers a tomb, important enough to mark in his diary. He stops work, sends the workmen away - and goes on a 4 or 5 day retreat after visiting 4 specific colleagues. One of these colleagues included the later murdered Antoine Gelis. Bérenger Saunière returns, employs new workmen and begins digging again …
In the following years Bérenger Saunière buys the grounds around the church: he will build a house here, the "Villa Bethany" [the house of Bethany] and also a tower, the "Magdala Tower" whose building begins in May 1891.
In 1891, on the advice of Mgr Billard, bishop of Carcassonne, Sauniere went to Paris during the summer to decrypt the parchments. Thanks to his relations in the monarchist milieu, Saunière met notably Emma Calvé, opera singer, Claude Debussy and the occultist Jules Bois. Saunière brought back from this trip the reproduction of a painting by Nicolas Poussin, exhibited at the Louvre, the "Shepherds of Arcadia". The painting has a peculiarity: it seems to represent a landscape near the village of Arques, not far from Rennes-le-Château and a tomb that exists there.
It was also in 1891 that Bérenger Saunière began to redesign the gardens of the church according to particularly sophisticated plans and he planted a cross marked "mission 1891". He personally carries out digs in the small cemetery behind the church, digging up the earth, moving the mortuary stones and bones to the point that the villagers officially complain to the Mayor of the village. He is also suspected of having erased the inscriptions on a curious slab, that of the tomb of Marie de Nègri d'Ables. She is a woman who, on the eve of her death on January 17th, 1781 entrusted to Antoine Bigou a family secret regarding Rennes in 1774. Bigou is said to have concealed the documents relating to this secret in one of the pillars of the altar of the church of Rennes. The funerary tomb slab of Marie, moreover, has always aroused astonishment because the epitaph of the Marchioness contains errors, and strange links between the words.
These unusual initiatives and intrigues concerned Bérenger’s contemporaries and the origin of the funds used to finance these activities intrigued them even more. At the time of Sauniere himself visitors referred to the very 'rich priest'. Saunière, moreover, coexists with the maid he had met and employed in 1886 at the age of 18, and it is with her that he carries out excavations in the cemetery, travels the countryside at night, organizes receptions at his home all with the assistance of this maid ...
Worried by his lifestyle and the comments that it raised as well as by his independent personality, the ecclesiastical authorities, after unsuccessfully trying to remove him from his parish, condemned him in 1910 for "mass trafficking". Saunière resigns from his priesthood the following year. Before succumbing on January 22, 1917, at 5 o'clock in the morning, he confessed to his friend Father Rivière.
With his death there begins to be born a wonderful story, that is told among the surrounding villages: that of a country priest with much energy and colourful behaviour, who found a treasure or a secret which made him a rich man, which allowed him to realise all the astonishing architectural arrangements he made & on the land he was able to buy and build his domaine.