Chapter 11: Mysterious Income
On a related note, it is suspected that occult rituals might have had something to do with the sudden death of one of Sauniere’s collegues in 1897. On October 31 of that year, close to the end of Sauniere’s church decoration period, 71-year-old Abbe Antoine Gelis, priest of the parish at nearby Coustassa, was murdered. He had been one of the people that Sauniere visited immediately after he recorded that he had “discovered a tomb.”
Gelis had been sick and living a reclusive life for years, and allowed few people to come visit him. Yet he apparently let his attacker inside on the night of the murder, for there was no sign of forced entry. The killer bashed his skull in, and placed his body reverently on the ground, with his arms folded over his chest like an Egyptian pharaoh lying in his coffin. (Interestingly, this is also how Masonic initiates are told to lie down when they are play-acting death and resurrection during the Hiram Abiff ceremony of the 3rd degree.) He left a note on the body written on a cigarette paper that said, simply, “Viva Angelina.”
The only things that the murderer took from Abbe Gelis’ residence were apparently some unspecified papers, and the unspecified contents of a knapsack. He left 1000 francs sitting in drawers, along with 13,000 francs hidden throughout the church and presbytery. So obviously he was not interested in stealing this money. But then, why did the priest have this money? In addition to this, it was discovered by investigators that he had recently invested 15,000 – 20,000 francs. Like Sauniere, his priest’s salary was a mere pittance. Clearly, Abbe Gelis had an unaccounted-for source of income, and it might have had something to do with his death.
At the funeral was Berenger Sauniere, who at the time was becoming increasingly indiscreet about the fact that he too had an unaccounted-for income. By 1898, evidence of Sauniere’s unexplained fortune was clear. He bought up property in the village on which he planned to create a magnificent domain for himself. He bought this property under other people’s names, most often that of his housekeeper, Marie Deneraud. He had several bank accounts at this time, in Paris, Toulouse, Perpignan, and Budapest, Hungary.
Concurrently with this, Sauniere is said by author Andre Douzet to have gone to Lyons several times in 1898 and 1899 to attend meetings of the secret occult fraternity known as the Martinists, a group which I will describe in detail later on. The evidence for Sauniere’s attendance of these meetings comes from receipts for carriage rentals have been found bearing the name of an “Abbe Sauniere.” If Sauniere was indeed a practicing Martinist, it would be very interesting, for reasons that I will soon explain.
In 1900, Sauniere began the construction of the Baroque-style Villa Bethanie, situated on his domain near his church. At the time he drew up the plans for the building, he described it as a planned home for retired priests. But he never actually used it for this purpose, nor did he move into it himself. Rather, he used it to entertain the numerous rich and important guests who now flocked from all corners of France to visit this obscure clergyman in his remote and tiny village in the Pyrenees mountains. Several members of France’s noble class, as well as respected members of the artistic, literary, and occult sets came to dine with the abbot in his magnificent domain.
As further evidence of his unexplained wealth, Sauniere entertained his guests with expensive imported foods, wines, and other spirits. He also began collecting rare books and stamps. He acquired two pet monkeys, as well as two dogs, one of whom he named “Faust”, after the play by Johann von Goethe in which the title character sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for ultimate wisdom.
Sauniere added more onto his domain as well. He had a garden installed, as well as a terrace overlooking the valley below. His crowning achievement was the Gothic-style tower he had built, which he dubbed the “Magdalen Tower”, and used to house his now-massive library. But by the time he finished this building in 1908, his mysterious funds had begun to dry up.
Where was Sauniere getting all this money? We know that much of it came from wealthy patrons, whose donations were facilitated by his brother, Abbe Jean-Marie Alfred Sauniere, also a priest. “Alfred”, as he was known to his friends, had become notorious in the Church for his love of liquor and women. He was dismissed from the priesthood in 1904 and became ill. He returned to his home town of Montazels that year, and died on September 9, 1905. Berenger Sauniere at this time made out a will for himself, leaving everything to Marie Deneraud, and stating that he was doing so because of “the little trust that I have in my relatives, whose conduct has been very reprehensible on the death of my brother.” Nobody knows what specifically he was referring to.
After 1908, Sauniere’s lavish lifestyle came to the attention of the Bishop of Carcassonne, who asked him to account for the source of his wealth. At first, Sauniere told the Bishop to mind his own business. But as the matter dragged on, and Sauniere was forced to attempt an explanation, he compiled a list of revenues totaling almost 200,000 francs, and a list of expenses almost equal to that. Modern researchers, however, have examined his records and estimated that the actual amount of his expenditures in the previous ten years was about 600,000 francs, so his income must have been at least that. This is about equal to 2 million pounds sterling, or about 3.79 million dollars – far in excess of his salary as a priest.
The sources of income that he claimed included donations from wealthy people, some of whom he said he could not name, because he had promised to keep their identities secret. For those he could name, he seems to have inflated the actual amount of the donations by about three times in the records he presented in his defense. Presumably he did this because he needed to account for money that he could not explain the origin of. But his lies were not fooling anybody.
In January of 1909, the Bishop of Carcassonne reassigned Sauniere to the parish of Coustouge, thirty miles away from Rennes-le-Chateau. The people of Rennes-le-Chateau were furious. The mayor of the village wrote to the Bishop of Carcassonne to complain, warning him that his people would not attend church with any other priest. In July, Abbe Henri Marty was assigned to take over the parish. But Sauniere just set up an altar in the Villa Bethanie, and held mass there, while his replacement administered to an empty church.
In October of the next year, the diocese put Sauniere before a tribunal in Carcassonne on charges of trafficking in masses. He was not convicted for lack of evidence, but because he refused to truthfully account for the sources of his money, he lost his right to administer the sacraments (suspens a divinis, as it is called by the Church). Sauniere appealed to the Court of Rome in 1911, but they refused to overturn the sentence.
It appears to be true that Sauniere was trafficking in masses, which means that he was selling masses for the dead to people outside of his parish. The Church requires that any priest who performs such masses must give the money earned to the diocese, to be distributed amongst all of the priests. Sauniere clearly had not been doing this.
We know that he was indeed trafficking in masses, because he advertised the sale of masses for the dead in a number of religious magazines. From the letters that have been discovered, it appears that orders for masses immediately started pouring in, sent through the mail. One author, Jean-Jacques Bedu, in his book Autopsie d’un Myth (Autopsy of a Myth), claims that the records show Sauniere was collecting fees for so many masses that he could not possibly have done them all, since Catholic priests are restricted to saying no more than three masses a day. He got backlogged to the point where he was over a year behind in meeting all of his mass requests. But he had already collected the money, of course, and probably had spent it, too. At a certain point, in January 1894, he stopped keeping records of these masses, and M. Bedu suggests that he stopped saying them as well, but continued to collect the money.
However, many authors still conclude that neither the revenues from the sale of masses, nor the claimed donations from wealthy patrons, could account for all of Sauniere’s wealth. He had to at least be receiving larger donations from more people than what he was reporting. Or, as some think, he had discovered some valuable treasure beneath the ground of his church.
By the time Sauniere was being hauled into court, he was broke, overdrawn at the bank, and actually trying unsuccessfully to sell off his property. Strangely, though, towards the time of his death in 1917, he had begun making plans to do more expensive property improvements, and even planned to buy a car for himself, as if he was anticipating more money coming in soon.
Chapter 12: Death of a Salesman
It is often claimed by writers on the subject that Sauniere’s death was mysterious, because he was reportedly said to be “in good health for his age” by a doctor who examined him a few weeks before his death. But really he had been sick and suffering for years. He had a stroke, or a heart attack, and collapsed at some point in mid-January 1917. Some say it was on the 17th of the month, which is supposedly significant for the Priory of Sion, for they place importance on that date as the feast day of St. Sulpice. But there is no proof regarding which exact day it happened. However, we do know that a few days later, on the 22nd, he died.
The fact that Sauniere died when he did is really not mysterious. But there are some odd details about his death that give one pause. For instance, Marie Deneraud had reportedly ordered a coffin for him several days before his collapse, as if she somehow had inside knowledge of the fact that he was about to die. During the days between his collapse and his death, as he was lying on his deathbed, a priest from a nearby town was called in to hear his confession and administer Last Rites. But as purported witnesses have stated, this priest emerged from the bedchamber moments later, stricken with terror, and having refused to give Sauniere Extreme Unction. From that point on, he “never smiled again”, and his inexplicable state of mental anguish lasted for several months.
Even more bizarre, perhaps, is what happened to Sauniere’s body post-mortem. On January 23, the day after he died, Sauniere’s corpse was seated upright in a chair in the sitting room of the Villa Bethanie, covered by a blanket with red pom-poms hanging off of its fringes. His parishioners proceeded to pluck these pom-poms off as they filed past, one by one, giving their respects. The meaning of this ceremony has eluded most researchers, but as I will later demonstrate, its roots are quite ancient, and it is just more evidence of Sauniere’s involvement with the practice of the occult.
When Sauniere’s will was read, he was found to be penniless, which is not terribly surprising. He left all of his property to Marie Deneraud, which is also not surprising. But Mme. Deneraud’s behavior after his death leaves questions about the source of the wealth Sauniere once had, and whether or not that wealth had really been exhausted.
The day he died, Mme. Deneraud was seen running around the village, crying and screaming “My God! My God! Monsieur the cure is dead … now everything is finished”, as if they had been involved in some grand scheme together. It is not known what type of scheme this might have been, but Marie was seen in a park at night burning documents shortly afterwards. From there on out, Mme. Deneraud would go to Sauniere’s grave at a specific time each night and speak to his departed soul. It is uncertain whether or not he ever answered back, but she reportedly kept up this ritual for the rest of her life.
In 1946, Marie gave her property over to her new friend, Noel Corbu, who had just moved in to the village. This gift was made with the promise that she would be allowed to live there for the rest of her life, and would be cared for in her old age. According to author Jean-Luc Chaumeil, Corbu was originally acting as a secret agent for the diocese, to whom he was supposed to sell the estate after he had acquired it from Deneraud. He reportedly reneged on this deal, and stayed true to his promise to Marie instead.
What would have caused Corbu to change his mind? Why was the diocese so anxious to gain ownership of this property? Enigmatic statements uttered by Mme. Deneraud to various friends indicated that there was something within the land there which amounted to a treasure, and which had somehow been integral in Sauniere’s financial gain. She told one friend, Mme. Vidal, that “With what Monsieur the cure has left, one could feed all of Rennes for a hundred years, and it would still remain.” Asked why she lived so poorly if she had access to so much wealth, she replied, “As to that, I cannot touch it.”
On a similar note, Noel Corbu’s daughter Claire reported that one day, when her father was expressing worry about one of his business interests in Algeria, Mme. Deneraud said to him: “Don’t worry yourself so much, my dear Noel … one day I will tell you a secret that will make you a rich man … very rich.” But she never did tell him the secret. She fell into senility, and died in 1953.
A little over two years later, on Easter 1955, Noel Corbu opened the Hotel-Restaurant La Tour in the Villa Bethanie. He used the Sauniere story, and the hints of alleged hidden treasure, as a gimmick to attract tourists. Because of his financial interest in the matter, and because he is the source for so much of the lore surrounding Sauniere and Rennes-le-Chateau, many authors dismiss Corbu’s account of the story as unreliable. There was no mystery regarding Sauniere, his wealth, and his domain, they say, until Corbu invented it. But he appears to have genuinely believed in the existence of the treasure, as he financed digs to try to find it, and hired dowsers to determine the best spots to dig at. Villagers who knew him still attest to the veracity of his claims.