Feature Articles – Dynamite, Father de Coma and his abbey
The region of Foix is notorious for being the Cathar heartland, identified by the citadel of Montségur. Some kilometres to the west of the town of Foix sits Le Baulou, a small village that seems to be as far away from the hustle and bustle of Rennes-le-Château as could possibly be… yet Baulou was the site where yet another local village priest decided to erect some monumental building works… afterwards dynamited on the order of the bishop.
by Philip Coppens
Le Baulou is close to the tourist path, but seldom if ever receives visitors, who instead prefer to bypass the site for the subterranean river of Labouiche, the longest navigable underground river in Europe open to the public. Nevertheless, the car park in front of its church would be well equipped to receive the visitors. The modern, well-maintained car park is in stark contrast with the church itself. Dedicated to Mary Magdalene, it seems to be eternally shut, the presence of a key not allowing for an easy access, for perhaps a sign of it having rust into place.
But it is not the village church that is the site of interest; that sits along a small track, allowing the crossing of only one car at a time. Without prior knowledge, no modern visitor would ever stumble across it. Even then, nothing remains clearly visible that shows the dramatic past of the site of “Carol”. After a final corner, a large building rises to the right: the only remains of the building extravaganza that was unleashed in this small valley by father de Coma, in the middle of the 19th century. Louis de Coma was born in 1822 in Foix, in a family of nine children. His father, Bonnaventure, was a famous architect and thus he was a member of a wealthy family, who had bought the estate of Carol (still signposted today), a sizeable domain in Baulou.
The family’s history seems to go back to the 16th century; though wealthy, nothing would suggest that Louis de Coma would ever rise above the ranks of the ordinary priesthood – and in the end he never did; only his fame would. He hoped to study at the Seminary of St Sulpice, in Paris. However, the bishop was of the opinion that priests that studied in such important places never returned home, hence he was asked to study for the priesthood closer to home. In 1844, he entered the Jesuit Seminary in Saint Acheul in Amiens. It meant that de Coma became a Jesuit, this at a time when Jesuits had little esteem in the eyes of the French people. The cave with the statue of Mary Magdalene Nevertheless, he remained a teacher until 1855, when his father died and Louis returned to the family domain in Baulou. Perhaps because of the death of his father, de Coma decided that his main focus would be to pray for the souls of the deceased – an area of “expertise” that continues to thrive in Catholic countries, with families paying for masses to be said in the name and honour of the deceased of the family. There were several systems, the most popular being the mechanism in which one French franc was given, which would e.g. mean that the name of the deceased was said in a list of many people who had paid the same amount for a similar homage. But families could also pay for specific masses, in which an entire ceremony was dedicated towards the attendants praying for the souls of the deceased. It is clear that this privilege cost more – 100 French francs to be precise – but it is equally clear that it brought in extra income for the priest. The entire endeavour was totally legal, and well-practised in all areas of France, and beyond. However, it was understood that most priests had to channel a certain percentage of the profits back to their order, in his case, the Jesuits. De Coma did step in the footsteps of the Cathars and their obsession with dead. Apart from the repeated masses for the dead, he also travelled through France to make people aware of the problem of death. He wanted to “prepare” people. De Coma was and became even more a very wealthy person. Like so many, he wanted to divert this into building works, to convert Carol into a religious centre. His elder brother, Ferdinand, was also a well-known architect and thus the ideal candidate to draw the plans for the new centre.
Building work began in 1856, just after the return of Louis to the family domain. The church his brother had planned, looks remarkably similar to that of Lourdes, even though at the time, Bernadette had not yet seen the manifestation of the Virgin Mary there – and the church did not yet exist. This suggests that the design of Lourdes was actually inspired on the church of Carol, an impressive feat for an unknown priest. The design and execution of the church incorporated a crypt, which was designed to house the entire family line. On the opposite side of the church was a grotto, an artificial cave in which a statue of Mary Magdalene had been placed. To make the grotto more realistic, stalactites and stalagmites from nearby natural caves were purchased for insertion into the artificial structure. They remain in place to this day… The Stations of the Cross began right next to the grotto, gently up the slope of the hill. This was a major deviation from standard practice. Whereas most stations of the cross in churches are simple wooden depictions of the perils of Jesus, de Coma built massive stone structures, the remains of many of which can still be seen standing along the path that climbs towards the top of the hill. A Calvary was erected at the very top of the hill, with depictions of Christ on the Cross, John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene at the feet of the cross. Next to the church, there was room for a monastery or a nunnery, with the hope that soon, a religious community would occupy the buildings.
As could be expected, the building works were not randomly designed. The church, the grotto, the Calvary and the church of Mary Magdalene in the village were all intended to be aligned, roughly north-northeast. The entire work was to depict “Gethsemane”, the garden of the Mount of Olives, which was the area where the Passion of Christ had occurred. Jesus takes his disciples to this area shortly before he is arrested. He asks his disciples to pray; it is the location where Judas will betray him.
To make the area in the South of France resemble Palestine, de Coma ordered that trees and other plants were planted that could be found in Palestine. Unfortunately, they were ill-equipped for the hard winters of the French climate and soon died a premature death. Perhaps it was the first ill omen of the tough times that would come.
Though de Coma had built his church, it would was not – or ever would be – dedicated. When the Jesuits were disbanded in France in 1879, de Coma was faced with the question either to flee France and show his allegiance to the order, or stay and abandon his religious alliance. It were his religious superiors who advised him to abandon the Jesuit order and to continue to concentrate on finalising his building works. De Coma completed his building works in 1885, to plan; he even found certain monks from the Holy Ghost Community that agreed to settle in his monastery. In 1885, their leader, Antoine Decressol, signed the contract with de Coma regards the ownership of Carol. The deeds stated that de Coma was allowed to live and take care of the buildings, but that he would not have any other powers over the life of the community. It should therefore come as no surprise to see that de Coma would never sign certain parts of the contract, a resilience which greatly angered Decressol. When de Coma had left on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1886, Decressol and his men vacated their rooms and abandoned the premises.
For de Coma, it signalled the decline of his standing, though in 1890 he nevertheless still succeeded to become the priest of the Magdalene church at nearby Baulou. It meant that de Coma was now an enigmatic village priest, after being a ghostly recluse trying to convert his private domain into a religious centre. De Coma tried to safeguard his centre. He spoke to father Lambert, leader of an Apostolic School in Pamiers, in the hope of making Carol his new home. In the end, the idea would not be realised. Louis de Coma was now an old man (68 in 1890), a curiosity surrounded by a creation of his own making… a lone man, in a very large building, in a very small place. It is said that the controversy affected his mind: that he was seen walking around in the clothes of his dead mother. Still, his domain became the refuge of several priests on the run, when the Church and State were officially separated in 1904. By 1907, the 85-year old de Coma was no longer the priest of Baulou; on November 14, 1911, his dead, 89-year old body, was found in his bed. Remains of the calvary on top of the Stations of the Cross De Coma died without a will, which meant that the entire estate became the possession of the bishop. Nothing happened to the estate, until one of his successors sold the entire estate to the Baures family in 1956. The conditions of sale, however, detailed that the entire infrastructure had to be levelled with the ground. Why? The bishop gave the reason “so that no religious sect would settle there.” Whereas so far the mystery of de Coma would be of extravaganza but nothing more, the first question needs to be why any sect would want to settle there. Nothing at first sight would suggest a prime reason why “religious nutcases” would settle in the domain. No-one had so far and why would the sale and subsequent occupation of the site facilitate such a fate?
Though it is true that between 1911 and 1956, the estates had been used for a multitude of purposes, nothing extreme had ever occurred. It had housed soldiers that were on the run, local youths who used the church as an ideal party venue, and unfortunately also certain people who had entered the crypt to destroy the tombs of the deceased. Though unfortunate, it is clear that nothing of the kind would have occurred if the domain had been inhabited.
Despite the strange request, Henri Baures decided to grant the bishop his will. However, the first attempt at destruction with dynamite only rocked the statues. At the second attempt, with much more dynamite installed, when the entire village was covered in snow, the church was demolished; the Stations of the Cross leading up the hill were also destroyed. The field where the church once stood is still riddled with stones. The old building sites can still be clearly identified and it is clear that the site has never been converted into any other purpose… The path of the Stations of the Cross is small and abandoned. Overgrown. Not visited. The majority of the Calvary on top remains, but it is clear that it is also partly destroyed. There are scattered stones throughout, openings appear in certain places, perhaps leading into nowhere, perhaps leading in subterranean rooms. At the back of the Calvary is an opening, accessible by small steps. De Coma wanted to use this area as the crypt for the monks, but the two priests that did die during their stay, were buried in the side entrance of the family’s crypt in the church. Rumours argue that the bodies of Resistance fighters were interred here during the Second World War, though it is claimed that after the war, they were reburied elsewhere. The most intact, apart from the residence, is the grotto of Mary Magdalene. The crypt, nearby, is also largely intact, though now well covered up with branches so that further desecration or access is discouraged. De Coma was a village priest, who constructed an amazing domain. Though little remains, the total scope of the work is still easily visible.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that rumours have been aired that there must be a relationship between de Coma and Saunière, the enigmatic priest of Rennes-le-Château. It must be said that their careers are similar, though de Coma would never become the subject of such controversy or interest as his colleague further east. Saunière became village priest in 1885, at a time when De Coma was winding his building works down.
Did they ever meet? It is hard to say and the evidence suggests they did not – though absence of evidence, is never evidence of absence. There are definite parallels: both were village priests of a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Both churches were located in the Cathar heartland. More importantly, both received money from the Count de Chambord: de Coma received 4000 French Francs, Saunière 3000. De Coma named his estate Gethsemane, Saunière his Bethany – both areas where the Passion of Christ would occur. The crypt of Carol, where de Coma’s family was buried. Faced with such parallels, the question needs to be asked whether both priests were part of a “movement”. If they were, what kind of movement? It is said that Saunière wanted to make his estate a “retreat” for ill or retired priests and de Coma’s building plans would have allowed for similar use. This would not single any of them out for special treatment.
The strangest parallel is that Saunière’s enigma became known to the general public in 1956, the year when the bishop of Pamiers ordered the destruction of de Coma’s legacy. Coincidence, or design? In the end, de Coma is a strange inversion of Saunière. Whereas it is unknown where Saunière got his money from, the enigma of de Coma is what happened to his money. There are no records that can be easily consulted. But it is known that de Coma’s income was more substantial than what he and his family spent on his domain. But the final enigma does not rest with de Coma, but with a bishop who for some reason – excluding the illogical one – felt the estate had to be dynamited. Did it perhaps contain something the bishop did not want the world to see? If so, what? This article appeared in Frontier Magazine 3.1 (1997) and Les Carnets Secrets 5 (2006)