Feature Articles –   The Million Dollar Priest
There are mysteries, and then there are mysteries that become the cornerstone of other mysteries. In the latter category sits the story of Bérenger Saunière, the “million dollar priest” of the small French village of Rennes-le-Château.
by Philip Coppens

The small village of Rennes-le-Château is at the heart of many mysteries. At the heart of its mystery, however, is one man: Bérenger Saunière, who was born in the small village of Montazels, on April 11, 1852, the eldest son of the seven children of Joseph and Marguerite Saunière. In 1874, he began his training for the priesthood. Ordained in 1879, in 1885, he was appointed to Rennes-le-Château, close to his native home.

It is with this appointment that the mystery began, though it is said that it was only in 1891 that he stumbled upon a veritable treasure, which would allow him to create a very imaginative church and estate, which tourists now come to visit. However, more than a century onwards, no-one has been able to identify what precisely Saunière found. Or did. When he arrived, he found the presbytery uninhabitable, forcing him to take up lodgings with the Denarnaud family. Saunière’s starting salary was 60 francs per month (the equivalent of 900 Euro, ca. 1300 dollar). However, on the eve of the election of 1885, he spoke out against the Republic from the pulpit. With the Republicans victorious in next day’s elections, complaints flooded into the bishopric, which had to react, as France had a strict separation of Church and State. It resulted in a suspension of his salary. For Saunière, this suspension was a financial problem. Thus, the bishop, Mgr. Billard, intervened and lent him 200 francs, as well as giving him a position as a teacher in the seminary at Narbonne.

On July 1, 1886, he was reinstated as priest of Rennes-le-Château, with a donation of 3000 francs in his pocket by the countess of Chambord, the widow of the legitimate claimant to the throne, the circle of whom he likely came in contact with during his stay in Narbonne. His salary was also reinstated, now at 900 francs per annum (a rise of 25 percent).

It is important to focus on Saunière’s income from these early days onwards, for it is clear – contrary to popular belief – that years before Saunière is believed to have accidentally stumbled upon a treasure, Saunière was the benefactor of money and donations beyond what one would expect from a small village priest. His reappointment began a period of extensive buildings works, which eventually would end with the Villa Bethania. The donation of 3000 francs of the Countess has been seen as a show of appreciation as he tried to speak out in favour of her deceased husband, whose ghost hung over the 1885 elections. As to why precisely 3000 francs, the answer may be very simple: in 1879, a quote to carry out essential repair works to the church had given a total of 2798 francs. The money thus allowed him to carry out the first essential repairs.

In 1887, Saunière tackled the old altar, which was a simple stone slab. The new altar was purchased with a donation from a lady from Coursan. From October 1890 to September 1891, he spent 26661.50 francs. With an annual stipend of 900 francs, and him receiving 528.50 francs for saying masses and borrowing 500 francs from parishioners, we can only wonder where the rest came from. Probably one of the most controversial aspects of the mystery of Rennes-le-Château is the legal battle that Saunière played with bishop de Beauséjour, for the better part of a decade. For sceptics, it has been used as the “deus ex machina”, which allegedly is able to explain everything: that Saunière acquired his fortune through the rather mundane means of selling masses. For believers, it is a period of Saunière’s life that postdates most of what is to them of most interest, namely the enigmatic building works in the village. In truth, it is neither.

The problem with his bishop probably dates back to November 19, 1906, when de Beauséjour visited Rennes-le-Château and found that Saunière’s parishioners complained about their priest. The villager’s disgruntlement with the priest went back to his appointment twenty years earlier, when he spoke out against the Republic. Later, the parishioners then found him rummaging about in the cemetery and another complaint was lodged. When a part of the town went up in fire, Saunière refused to allow water from one of his cisterns to be used for extinguishing the fire.

A priest who is not liked by his parishioners is a serious problem; but that was not all. De Beauséjour reported that an underage girl was present in the presbytery. She had no place there. He also found that Saunière was the object of suspicion by his colleagues, because of the presence of “suspect people” in the presbytery, possibly referring to the same girl. There were also always children around, including a child Marie Denarnaud had adopted. In the eyes of de Beauséjour, Saunière did not lead the life of a priest, but that of a married man, as Marie and he shared the home. Most researchers of the enigma are also convinced they shared a bed. But what could de Beauséjour do to remedy the situation? He listed that Saunière’s buildings had been excessively expensive, without the existence of a paper trail. Furthermore, there had been numerous demands for masses in the diocese and throughout France, but there seemed to be no guarantee that actual masses had been said. To any manager, the situation was transparent: four years into his job, the new bishop made the acquaintance of one of his subordinates, and stumbled upon what he felt was a dangerous situation. It is like the employee who has been hiding in a corner – or in Saunière’s case, on top of a hill – apparently without the previous manager never bothering to “manage” that employee. Still, that was not the situation. De Beauséjour’s predecessor was perfectly aware of Saunière, and of his amazing building works; he had been there when Saunière reopened the restored church. He had apparently not questioned where Saunière got his money from; perhaps he knew? The situation lingered, until early 1909, when de Beauséjour and/or his team decided that the easiest solution would be to reassign Saunière to a different parish. Though this was not an uncommon practice, it was somewhat out of the ordinary for a man, like Saunière, who had been the shepherd of his flock for more than twenty years. That the sheep did not really appreciate him, was another point.

The order was received on January 15 and Saunière was given one week, until January 22, to move to Coustouges, his new position. In his diary, Saunière wrote: “This exceptionally strong measure, without any warning, has hit me in the beginning of the year, and has troubled me greatly. I am taken aback, a broken man.”

That same week, he received a letter from the priest of Bages, one of his best friends, who wrote: “I assure you that your letter has strangely surprised me. If I could have feared what would happen to you at some point in the past, I did not see it happening now. The death of the poor priest Gaudissard may have awoken bad memories?”

Gaudissard was the priest of Antugnac, and the previous year, Saunière had been priest of both Rennes-le-Château and Antugnac, until the latter position could be filled following Gaudissard’s sudden death on January 9, 1909, at the age of 49.

What is intriguing, is that Saunière’s friend is saying that he is not surprised that Saunière finds himself in this predicament, but he could never have foreseen that it would happen at that moment in time. Did he know more? If so, no-one has ever been able to weave this information into the pattern.

On further analysis, it is remarkable that de Beauséjour does not seem to act for many years, but as soon as Gaudissard dies, on January 9, within the week, there is an order by de Beauséjour that Saunière needs to move. And he is hardly given any time – a week, a pathetically small amount of time for a man who has lived in a village for more than twenty years. Could anyone really move that quickly, after such a long time? Yet, de Beauséjour seems intent on forcing the issue.

On his part, Saunière did visit Coustouges, but his new parish was not to his liking. He did not move out by January 22, and on January 28, Saunière had obviously made his decision: he resigned from his post as priest of Rennes-le-Château. This meant he could continue to live in the village – and do whatever he wanted. He thought. You would think that for de Beauséjour, that would be the end of the matter: Saunière had resigned and the issue was resolved. But the bishop did not feel that was the case. The sequence of events would take up the latter years of Saunière’s life, and would even be brought to the attention of the pope.

The file of the case, both at the Vatican and with the bishopric, commences with a letter from the Bishop’s office, dated January 19, 1909, that re-affirms the bishop’s instruction that Saunière must take up his new appointment at Coustouges. The next letter is dated January 29, in which Saunière is informed that the bishop does not accept his resignation – a very rare occurrence. He urges Saunière to meet him in Carcassonne, to provide further detail as to why he does not want Saunière to remain in Rennes-le-Château. Even though his resignation is not accepted, the bishop says the resignation will be accepted if Saunière refused to go to Coustouges. It is a bizarre twist of reasoning, to say the least! That de Beauséjour would not let this one go became clear, even though it took him more than 18 months to have Saunière officially answer for what de Beauséjour saw were transgressions.

One charge was that Saunière had trafficked in masses. A second point was that Saunière had to produce details of his accounts. A third charge was that Saunière had continued to solicit masses, even though the bishop had instructed him to desist. G. Cantegril, Vicar General and M. Charpentier, Clerk of the Court, ordered him to appear before the Court on July 16, 1910, to answer these charges. Saunière had not wanted to appear before the bishop 18 months before, and now, Saunière did not turn up in court, so summons were issued ordering an appearance on July 23. He missed this session too, and was declared to be in contempt of court. He was thus given a default sentence, namely a suspension of one month. He should also restore the fees for the solicitation of masses, but the court was unable to determine that sum.

This could have been the end of it, but it was not. Saunière must have realised this was a beneficial verdict, but rather than accept, he petitioned the bishop and was reinstated.

Going for a default conviction is very much like the default penalty for a speeding ticket one gets: if one accepts guilt, you pay and it does not go to court. By going to court, you risk the chance of a higher punishment, even though you may be found innocent. Saunière, it seems, felt he was innocent, or perhaps he was so adverse to de Beauséjour that he felt he would not be defeated by this “man” whom he truly seems to have hated. Saunière was asked to appear on August 23, 1910. He had retained Maitre Mis of Limoux as his defence. The date was then changed to October 15, and Saunière had a new council, Dr. Huguet. Though Saunière did not attend the hearing, Huguet did defend his client.

Huguet claimed that there was no evidence that Saunière solicited for masses, but that he merely received requests for paid masses, tasks which he fulfilled between December 31, 1899 and June 29, 1909. Huguet claimed that even though this amount seemed to have alarmed the bishop, it was not excessive and that furthermore Saunière officiated these masses. 280 masses per year, he felt, was not an excessive amount.

On the second “charge”, Huguet reported that Saunière had an income of 193,150 francs, which Saunière invested in good works: the restoration of the presbytery and the church were evidence of this, as well as the Villa Bethania. As to the third charge, that Saunière had continued to say masses despite the bishops’ interdiction, Huguet argued that Saunière had stopped as soon as the bishop had ordered him to. Interestingly, Huguet adds that Saunière’s income had come from donations, and that the bishop could not prove otherwise. Bold language for a lawyer, but then they are often reputed for that. Still, the boldness underlined a basic problem, which is that the donations did not match the total amount of money.

Roughly ten years of 280 masses per year is 2800 masses. These cost between, in the early days, 1 franc, and in the later days, 1.5 franc. The total sum would therefore be roughly 3000 francs. With 1 franc equalling 15 Euros (or ten pounds or 15 dollars), we are talking about 45,000 Euro – or an income of 4500 Euro per year from masses.

But that is not the problem – nor is it excessive. The problem is that 3000 francs is a long way short of the 193,150 francs that Saunière declared: roughly 2.9 million Euros. Where did he get that from? Of course, that was the question de Beauséjour wanted to see answered, and it is no doubt the main reason why the entire litigation against Saunière began in the first place, and why de Beauséjour was so adamant to break Saunière: he wanted to know. The court heard the defence and deferred judgment to November 5, when Saunière was asked to appear at his verdict. It was the only time he would attend. The sentence was not particularly harsh. The court felt it strange that faced with the large numbers of masses that Saunière received, that Saunière should give so many fees to other priests and still plead poverty when making requests. The court noted that he could not provide any proof that he had said these masses, not even a list of any kind. Even though they could excuse a priest for failing to retain a register if he was the only party involved, it was inadmissible that Saunière did not keep a record of the money and masses that he had given to his colleagues. In short, the court stated that Saunière could not have worked out who was what due without some forms of record, and that if Saunière did not keep such records, that was negligence.

Still, Saunière was given the benefit of the doubt. Even if he had retained some money for masses his colleagues had said on his behalf, and which was therefore not his to keep, he had indeed, as Huguet had argued, given the money over for good works. As to count three, the court did side with the bishop: Saunière had continued to say masses, despite the bishop’s interdiction.

In short, on count 1 and 3, though Saunière was not convicted of trafficking, the court had found him guilty of culpable negligence in his accountancy procedures and disobedience for continuing to solicit masses in spite of the bishop’s ban. He was sentenced to withdraw to a house of retreat, to undertake spiritual exercises, this for a ten day period, to occur during the following two months. The sentence was less harsh than the original one month suspension, which must have pleased Saunière. However, it was not count 1 and 3, the trafficking in masses, that was the problem. The big problem was count 2: Saunière had not been able to prove his income and the court would not put the issue aside. Saunière was told that within the month he was to present to the bishop details of his account. Though the court acknowledged that the roughly 200,000 francs that Saunière spent on his building works was mostly not from trafficking in masses, but from the faithful of other parishes, the court wanted further details.

The situation was, as all legal cases are, furthermore complicated by the fact that the court argued that the money had been given to the parish priest, and not to Saunière as an individual. This statement was in essence a ploy of the court to argue that it had an important role in the case, as it involved Saunière as a priest in his function as a priest, not Saunière as an individual. If otherwise, the court had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Finally, the court stated that it was strange that Saunière had only now revealed the size of the sums he had spent, still they felt it was not the time or the place to examine his motives or the execution of his works. Saunière now faced the formidable task of explaining his income… his income of roughly – and at least – 200,000 francs, or almost three million Euros in today’s money.

It is clear that anyone would be stupefied when they hear that a small parish priest was able to spend five million dollars on some building works. How did he get the money?

Some sceptics have argued that the total amount of money must have originated from the selling of masses. This would mean that 200,000 people sent him money. If he started in 1885 and continued until 1910, he would have received 8000 commissions per year. This is twenty requests per day, every day of the year. Though sceptics may wish to believe this, the court did not. Neither should anyone else. The ball was back in the court of de Beauséjour. On November 17, Saunière was advised of the sentence in writing by S. Bonnades, the dean of Couiza, indicating that he had ten days to appeal. He did appeal, on November 30. Why he waited is another small mystery. He was informed that his appeal was too late, that the sentence had gone into force on November 28.

With the sentence now in effect, a ping pong match of letters ensued – as they always seem to do. On December 5, Saunière was informed that he was no longer allowed to say mass. December 17 was the deadline to produce his accounts, but he failed. The following day, Saunière, apparently told by his lawyer, sent a letter to Rome, to appeal against the judgment. The Congregation of the Sacrament judged the case obscure, and on February 14, 1911 returned a “lectum recursum”, which in essence meant that Rome had not resolved the situation; the ball was once again in the court of Carcassonne.

On March 9, 1911, G. Cantegril of the court of Carcassonne, noted that Saunière had a certificate from doctor D. Roche, declaring that Saunière’s health did not permit him to undertake the retreat he had been instructed to perform as sentence for his culpability on count 1 and 3. He seems to have been well enough to write a letter on March 13, 1911. Saunière stated that the only documents he could offer were the breakdown of receipts, already accepted by the court during the proceedings and the certificate from the mortgage registry. As to invoices that would show that the total expense was close to 200,000 francs, he would try to support what expenses he could, but he had not bothered to keep invoices that were more than two years old. In total, he sent 61 documents and asked for their return as they were essential to his personal security. It is a most enigmatic statement! He stated that he hoped to carry out his retreat ten days before Easter at the Grand Seminary in Carcassonne. In short, Saunière was saying that he could not really prove that he had spent 200,000 francs on building and repairs work, as Huguet had alleged in court. There were some documents, but not everything had been retained. But that was not Saunière’s only problem – or major problem: that was the question where he got it from.

Saunière explained that problem in a letter on March 25, to Cantegril. He argued that the money originated from diverse incomes, including funds from the collecting box, including from visitors from Rennes-les-Bains; a 1887 lottery; his brother’s generosity; the sales of a set of 33 postcards; his collection of 100,000 postage stamps; the occasional sale of furniture and related items, include some income from his lectures on the history of Rennes-le-Château. Even from Saunière’s reply, it is clear that he is clutching at straws. What he is describing is the type of inventory you get from bailsmen. Saunière had to account for 200,000 francs and he was saying he got that money from selling postcards? From the collection box?

Let’s play with this: Let’s assume the total amount of money came from the collection box, that he said masses every week, for a period of 25 years. This would mean that the collection box had to turn over roughly 150 francs per mass. His church only had roughly eighty seats and who would – could – pay 30 Euros every week for a mass? Even at 15 Euros per week, the parishioners came off bad, as they would pay for a mass with the entire village present, yet would pay the same amount that an unknown person was willing to give to Saunière for a private mass! It did not take the court long to reach the same conclusion. On April 4, 1911, canon Charpentier stated that Saunière’s reply was very incomplete. He wanted to know what documents he had used to calculate the annual income of 1200 francs from the collecting box (this meant that Saunière stated that he roughly got 23 francs per week in this manner). Charpentier also wanted to know the dates of his brother’s largest donations.

Still, Charpentier stated that Saunière’s “expenditure account” was a series of documents showing a total sum of 36,000 francs, not 100,000 francs as he claims – and short of the total of almost 200,000 francs that the paper trail had to reveal. But before tackling the missing 100,000 francs, the court wanted to find out about the missing 64,000 francs, which would mean that half of Saunière’s income would be accounted for. At the moment, about one fifth was account for. The equivalent of 2.5 million Euros was missing. On April 8, 1911, Saunière expressed his disappointment about the court’s disappointment relating to the information he had provided. He had not kept ledgers from the income from the collecting boxes. He stated that his brother’s donations came between 1895 and 1903. Finally, he asked why he, as a priest, needed to submit to such detailed demands, which were normally only required when there is a commercial bankrupt.

The bishop must have realised that he had to change tack. Therefore, the following day, April 9, a Commission of Enquiry was created to resolve the issue. They asked Saunière to justify the 52,000 francs that Saunière said he had been paid by his lodgers. They wanted to know how many, from when and how could they have earned so much. Earning almost 800,000 Euros from people staying in your house was indeed a lot of money. On May 9, Saglio, president of the commission, did not accept Saunière’s explanations, specifically not on the invoices that had to account for 150,000 francs of his expenses. Saglio could simply not believe that Saunière would not retain these invoices. On May 14, Saunière replied, saying he was not prepared to submit to further interrogation. On May 27, there was a new attempt of the commission to find out how Saunière got his money. On June 2, Saunière replied that he was being treated like a prospective bankrupt and was at pains to assure the commission that he was fully solvent and not about to embarrass the diocese with an imminent financial scandal. Another attempt for further detail was sent off on June 14. Saunière replied on June 20. He repeated his previous assurances about his financial soundness as confirmed by the certificate of the mortgage registry, which was all they needed to know. Yet another request for details occured on July 7, and Saunière provided some of these on July 14. Saunière declared the total cost of the building of the Villa Bethania to be 90,000 francs. He argued that the work began in 1901, completed 1903, but that the entire estate was in the name of Denarnaud. This, it seems, was a stick the commission could use to beat Saunière with. There were no further requests for more detail; the commission began to write its report.

On October 4, the report of the commission went to the bishop, stating that they had been unable to obtain the information Saunière was asked to provide. Only 36,000 out of 193,000 francs were accounted for. The remaining 150,000 francs were accounted for only by a list of seven items, with the corresponding figures unsupported by any documents. They felt this was inadequate – if not a sham, though of course the commission would not say such a thing. They did argue that Saunière seemed to think that he only had to establish that he was not in debt, not understanding that it was his method of accounting that was being examined. Finally, the commission stated that it did not go to Rennes-le-Château, to confront Saunière, as they felt this would be a waste of time. With the commission’s report finalised, a new summons was prepared on October 30, 1911. Saunière was asked to appear in front of the bishop on November 21, to finalise the avoided sentence of November 5, 1910, count 2, i.e. further information on his accounts. The verdict was that Saunière decided the use of the funds he received personally, rather than through the bishop’s office. Furthermore, Saunière used some of the money for the Villa Bethania. This land was in the ownership of Denarnaud. As a consequence, he built on land that does not belong to him, and hence the buildings do not belong to him. This was deemed to be a serious problem, for the money had come from the diocese, yet had gone to enrich a private individual, with no apparent benefit to the larger community. On December 5, the court held its session, with neither Saunière of his representative showing up. Saunière was declared contumacious (stubbornly disobedient; persistently, wilfully, or overtly defiant of authority) and judged as such.

It is stated that 36,000 out of 200,000 francs had been spent on the church and Calvary; the rest had been spent on costly constructions with no useful purpose, on land that did not belong to him or were not even built in his name. He was found guilty of wastefulness and misuse of funds in his care. He was sentenced to a three month’s suspension a divinis, but indefinitely until he returned the goods to the Church. The sentence was without appeal.

It was a harsh judgment, which according to some interpreters is what finally cracked Saunière. But Saunière must have seen this coming. The bishop’s sentence was only valid for six months. Then Saunière made an appeal to Rome via Huguet. The Congregation at Rome delivered their judgment in October 1915; the bishop lifted his suspension, but Saunière was never reinstated. He died 15 months later, on January 22, 1917, eight years to the day when in 1909 he was supposed to become the new parish priest of Coustouges. In conclusion, Saunière was found guilty of negligence and contempt, but cleared of the latter by the intervention of Rome. For the first, he did do his retreat, as ordered by the bishop. He was not, as some argue, found guilty of trafficking in masses and no-one at the time believed that his source of income came from trafficking in masses.

What everyone did want to know and Saunière no-one wanted to tell was where the money did come from. Was it merely because our priest was so obstinate and hated de Beauséjour that he wished to defy him at all cost? Perhaps and it should not ruled out. Still, it is clear, as we now know, that Saunière had detailed accounts, both of his income and his expenses. His so-called “carnets” have been the subject of detailed analysis since they were discovered some decades ago. Though they do not list every single item of his income and expenses, they were exactly the type of information the commission was interested in. So why did Saunière not want to surrender these documents to the commission?

The only logical answer is that Saunière protected his sponsors; he did not want to reveal why they were offering him large amounts of money. It is clear that it was not for officiating masses; the sums far exceed what Saunière asked for those. But why were they giving Saunière money? What was it that he did for them in return? That is a question that may have been at the origin of the trial and the interest of de Beauséjour. It is the question that should have been at the forefront of everyone who has investigated the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, but alas, few if any have done as such! From ca. 1905 to 1915, Saunière seems to have had no access to funds. His bank account was overdrawn. It is even stated that he tried to sell the Villa Bethania, but could not find a buyer. From the commencement of the enquiry and ensuing trial, Saunière was carefully monitored.

Then, in 1915, as soon as the trial was over, he made new plans: he wanted to build a road from Couiza because he wanted to buy a car; he wanted to have running water in the village; he also wanted to build a chapel in the churchyard; a wall around the village; a 50m high tower so he could see who entered the village; a new library and he wanted to raise the first tower, the Tour Magdala, and the glasshouse. Others argue he also wanted an outside baptismal pool. According to Noel Corbu, the whole project of works would have cost 8 million franc, or an astonishing 120 million Euros/dollars (ca. 80 million pounds). Sceptics have argued none of these projects were ever carried out. True, but Saunière placed the order on January 5, 1917, thus with the full intent of having to pay for it. It was not his fault that he died 17 days later.

So we are left with the incredible, but true story, of a priest who spent millions… and might have spent – almost – a hundred million. It is a mystery that a century onwards, despite hundreds of people interested in, has moved little forward. Maybe they have been concentrating on all the wrong places and facts?