Sunday, September 26, 2010


This strange, devilish statue is just inside the door of the little church in Rennes-le-Chateau, where it has been standing since 1896, when a poor parish priest undertook a major renovation of the church and grounds in the tiny isolated village near Limoux. This little church has quite a notorious past, however, most of it is entirely speculation.

A few days ago we visited Rennes-le-Chateau, a place made even more famous by the movie "The Da Vinci Code". The church and grounds are beautiful, to be sure, but the real story is of the priest, Father Berenger Sauniere. Beginning with his tenure here in 1885,the priest transformed the run down, ready to collapse church into a thing of beauty. The mystery, and the most enjoyable thing about the visit, is learning the theories about where Father Sauniere obtained funds to finance this restoration. We bought the comic book version of the story (which is probably pure speculation but just as reliable as anything else) and it postulates that Sauniere found a stash of gold that was hidden in the church just before the French Revolution. The gold was thought to be that of wealthy parishioners who died in the violence or fled France. There are other more magnificent theories that say the gold was Templar treasure, Visigoth loot or a stash of gold hidden by Cathars before being persecuted out of existence. Even mention of the Holy Grail pops up here and there.

Here's a page from the comic book. You can see the good father's housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, who, it is said was quite attractive, who never married and who was buried right next to Sauniere, thirty years after his death in 1917. So, we've got speculation about finding gold and the unspoken suggestion of illicit sex between a supposed celibate priest and his unmarried housekeeper. Wow, this is good stuff!

Besides refurbishing the church, Father Sauniere also bought property in Marie's name (hmmm...she must have been a good housekeeper) and built towers and greenhouses and a sumptuous cottage where he entertained important guests. He sounds to me more like a crooked mayor, or a gangster, than a priest. But the villagers loved him, perhaps because they all worked for him on his renovation projects. The good father was defrocked in 1915 because the Catholic hierarchy suspected him of dipping his fingers into church funds. While he was no longer a priest, Marie still owned the nearby villa, gardens, tower and greenhouse, so Sauniere didn't have to move too far away. In fact, only a few feet.

The greenhouse is very cool indeed and has a great 360 degree view of the vineyards and mountains nearby. I was surprised to find that no one has accused Father Sauniere of growing marijuana in his greenhouse.

Here's the final resting place of the good father, and Marie is supposed to be buried nearby, but I didn't find the spot because I wasn't looking for it. Well, it's all quite a good yarn, but there may be no truth what-so-ever to any of the speculation. Father Sauniere may have raised the cash legitimately from anonymous donors and Marie may have been quite plain looking and died a virgin with some nice real estate. But one thing's for sure: in this part of France, with all the other fantastic things to see, the chateau is hardly worth a visit without all of the lurid speculation.


Anonymous said...

I love this place. When I finally get to Leran I want to go there. I've always wanted to paint a ceiling that dark blue with stars. Thanks for showing us this. lro

Anonymous said...

I love the "gossip"...keep it coming! The church really is quite lovely...regardless of how it was funded!


Anonymous said...

ha, I will experiment my thought, your post bring me some good ideas, it's truly amazing, thanks.

- Murk

Peggy said...

Sauniere was very clever giving Marie her gifts while the going was good. I don't think he was the first or last celibate priest to have a faithful housekeeper.