In 1885, Abbot Beranger Saunière arrived in the small community of Rennes-le-Château in France. This unusual priest was the source of one of the most amazing secrets of the XIXth Century. How was this abbot, who came of such modest origins, able to undertake the gigantic task of renovating the Cathedral of Rennes-le-Château, and want for nothing in his life? Where did he obtain the fabulous sums of money he spent? Many say he found hidden treasure beneath his church…
Beranger Saunière was born on April 11, 1852, into a large family of 7 children, in Montazels in the department of Aude. He distinguished himself at a very early age. His strong character, independent nature, and abhorrence of discipline made him stand out from other shildren. He had quite a few run-ins with his superiors when he entered the Church.
Beranger was ordained on April 7, 1879. He became a vicar, and was soon promoted to abbot, his rapid ascension due to his superior intelligence. He worked as a professor at the Narbonne Semionary, but his free spirit alienated him from his superiors, and he was finally exiled to the small parish of Rennes-Le-Château, where he arrived in 1885. That was the turning point of his life, and the beginning of an incredible enigma that fascinates people even today.
The Abbot’s First Exile
Abbot Beranger, although ambitious, was quickly forced to come face-to-face with the reality of being a spiritual leader in a town of little more than 2000 people, which was very difficult to access. The village church where he was to live and work, named after Mary Magdalene, was in a piteous state of disrepair when he arrived. The entire building was eaten away by humidity and threatened to collapse. The roof needed serious repair, his rooms were uninhabitable, and he had to lodge with one of the village families for the first few months of his stay.
In October of 1885 legislative elections were held that revealed the abbot’s nostalgia for the monarchy, and his secret hopes for the return of the king.
The Abbot’s Second Exile
That was unfortunate, because the Republicans won the election, and the mayor of Rennes-le-Château wrote to the minister of Arts and Culture in Paris and accused the abbot of being an active enemy of the Republic.
Abbot Beranger was stripped of his duties (and his income) for six months. He was sent to teach at the Seminary of Narbonne, but was not replaced as the abbot of his parish.
Learning of his financial distress, the Bishop of Narbonne made him a gift of 200 francs, while the Countess of Chambord gave him another one or two thousand francs, although no one is sure of the exact amount.
She was the widow of the Count of Chambord who, in the event the throne was restored would become King (and she Queen) of all France. Why she suddenly offered her support to an unknown priest is still a mystery.
Return To Grace
For unknown reasons, the Abbot returned to his parish in 1886, and was quickly integrated into the community.
In 1887 he began repairing and improving the cathedral and presbytery, using money he obtained from… well, the fact is, no one actually knew where the money came from! It just seemed to appear out of nowhere.
The Abbot’s ecclesiastical superiors, as well as his parishioners, were all astonished. One thing was certain: the Countess’ gift wasn’t enough to finance work that must have cost many thousands of gold francs.
The mystery began when Abbot Beranger was directing the repair of the main altar. The workers made an astonishing discovery. In one of the pillars supporting the altar, which was exposed by the work being done, four mysterious parchments were found. We still don’t know what they contained.
A Flood of Discoveries
The parchments were the first in a series of finds, each more amazing than the last. Another parchment was discovered inside a wooden column, while it was being restored. The Abbot said it wasn’t of much interest, and took it away.
Next morning, he returned to the work site and asked a couple of laborers to lift a flagstone directly below the altar. A carved seal was discovered inside, dating back to the time of the Carolingian Kings. The seal had belonged to Sigbert IV, a Carolingian King who had mysteriously disappeared after the death of his father, Dagobert II.
Next, Abbot Beranger found a recipient made out of clay, buried next to altar, filled with priceless objects. We don’t know exactly what was inside, since Abbot Beranger took it all away. What we do know is that the coffer contained a chalice of inestimable value.
According to official accounts, Abbot Beranger used the contents of the coffer to fund the costly restorations of the cathedral and its surroundings.
The Abbot and His Secret Cache
Beranger continued looking for treasure, but we don’t know if anything was found. Archeologists later determined that the cathedral was built over the site of an ancient Carolingian burial ground, where crypts once contained fabulous treasures.
Work on the cathedral continued, with the high point being the magnificent gardens surrounding the building, which the Abbot designed, and then paid to maintain. In 1891, he discovered another tomb which, according to his writings, was the most important of all.
A Trip To Paris
In 1893 Abbot Beranger went to Paris, hoping to decipher the parchments he’d found, which he hadn’t been able to understand, since the writing they used was unknown to him.
Under the tutelage of a certain Emile Hoffet, a nephew of the man Beranger left the parchments with, the Abbot discovered the artistic side of Paris. He met many celebrities, including the poet Mallarmé, the composer Claude Debussy, the writer Maeterlinck, and the famous singer Emma Calvé, whose lover he became!
Beranger went to the Louvre to acquire copies of three famous paintings, one by Teniers, one by Poussin, and one anonymous.
But when the church hierarchy refused to return his parchments because they were so valuable, he went back to his village in disgust.
The Priest With Billions
Not only did Abbot Beranger decide to hide the discoveries he made from that point on, he also started leading an extremely luxurious life.
He was called the billionaire priest, and travelled to all the capitals of Europe, where he opened numerous bank accounts, notably in Hungary, the birthplace of his generous benefactor, the Countess of Chambord.
He didn’t forget is parishioners either, and had the cathedral decorated by the most famous artists and artisans of the day. Some of the frescos were not very Catholic in their themes, and contained many mysterious symbols.
He acquired numerous land holdings, and constructed many sumptuous houses, all registered under the name of his servant, Marie Dénarnaud, who also became immensely wealthy.
The Beginning Of The End
The people of the village were soon scandalized by the scenes depicted in the frescos that adorned their cathedral. They also had a negative opinion about the abbot’s lifestyle, and all the receptions he hosted, not at all the way a village priest and a man of the Church was supposed to act.
The church hierarchy finally reacted when Beranger’s protector, Monsignor Billard, Bishop of Carcassonne, died in 1901.
Because of his repeated refusals to explain where he had obtained his fortune, Beranger was sent somewhere distant and unimportant – a place called Coustouge, where he finally handed in his resignation in 1909.
Falsely accused of accepting payment for performing Mass, an ecclesiastic tribunal condemned him to ten days retreat in a secluded monastery.
He was condemned a second time, and suspended from his work for stealing church funds, obviously another false accusation.
The War of 1914-1918
Beranger needed cash and decided to sell some of his assets. The year was 1914, however, and he wasn’t able to access his possessions in Hungary, which was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and therefore at war with France. He tried to get to Hungary, but couldn’t manage it.
Exhausted, sick, and almost ruined, he had a stroke on January 17, 1917. He recovered, but it was only a short respite. On January 22, 1917, Abbot Beranger
Saunière died. The priest who had heard his confession emerged looking totally shocked, and soon became depressive, unable to reveal what Abbot Beranger had told him because of the secrecy of the confession.
Abbot Beranger took many secrets with him to the grave, secrets about the strange treasures of Rennes-Le-Château that have not been unraveled to this day.