|Bérenger Saunière in Lyon|
The priest’s presence in Lyon
We could have phrased the above differently: “Saunière’s presence in Lyon”. It is a small linguistic difference, but in reality, it is a major difference. A priest is both an individual and a function, just like so many other professions. Though Saunière’s presence in Lyon was unknown to his villagers, in Lyon, he made no secret of the fact that he was a priest. If Saunière merely went to Lyon as an individual, he would have been able to maintain a very low profile if he wanted to. By using his title as priest, his profile was slightly raised.
Advantages of being a priest
century ago, being a priest was accompanied by a lot of respect; certain
questions were never asked: “why are you here?” It was assumed
the priest must have a logical reason to be there. People trusted an ecclesiastic…
Perhaps Saunière used his title as he had to exert his position of power, or perhaps he moved in priestly circles in Lyons, which would largely have remained inaccessible if he pretended to be a “mere individual”. It also meant that he would have access to religious archives, influential people and church authorities.
Finally, there is the area of Lyon in which he stayed. Ever since we made the residence of Saunière in Lyon public, no-one has done any further investigations into this aspect. It is unlikely that Saunière would sleep in the street or in a type of camping. If he stayed in a hotel, no-one would have been any the wiser, but it would have been more difficult to receive correspondence there. It would also cost more money. Finally, if a priest walked into a hotel in his priest’s tunic, it would raise some questions. Saunière would have had to “dress down” for the occasion to pass below the radar of suspicion.
Where else could he stay? A house with a lease is one option, buying an apartment is another option. But in both instances, there would be clear legal notes. Furthermore, it is unlikely that he would do this, if his stays in Lyon are for very short periods of times, at irregular intervals. This leaves a “bed and breakfast”, often run by families, or special houses, mainly built by the Church for the clergy. The latter, however, would equally attract quite a bit of scrutiny, as he would be surrounded by visiting priests – which could mean priests from his local area – who would thus ask questions.
Lyon’s catholic hospitality
Saunière, priest, could easily move about for short periods of time.
We know he went to Lyon. We know he did not make a secret of him being a
priest. He had been a priest since 1882, almost two decades, before his
documented presence in Lyon. He must have known about the lodging houses
of the religious organisations and he would have been able to use them.
In principle, he could list a perfectly logical excuse for his presence: a pilgrimage, a retreat, a visit to some religious institution or monument. Lyon was the second town of France, which means there was a multitude of excuses why he had to be there. Could there be a specific reason why he opted for the rue de Machabbées?
The widowed Madam Jarau-Mermoutte and Mr Saunière, Priest
The church of St Irenee
the end, Saunière ended up being the guest the widow Jarau-Mermoutte
Jeanne-Marie. She welcomed people to stay, though only ecclesiastics, in
several small apartments on the hill of Fourvière, St Irenee and
Ste Foy-le-Lyon. She was also a very generous towards several female religious
congregations. This is something that we will return to later, for it may
be that her generosity was one of the reason why Saunière decided
to stay with her. If he was in Lyon to talk to certain people or “schmooze”
them, trying to stay with them, rather than in a hotel, is an excellent
method in getting to know them and make them “open up” to you.
Another reason why he opted for that lodging may be the nearby church of St Irenee. The church is intriguing, as it has a very old history attached to it. It has underground galleries, a network that was still in an excellent condition during the Second World War, as it was used by the Resistance, who apparently never had to surface, unless they wanted to do so. Of course, in more recent times, considerations for health and safety have closed off this network, in which children could easily get lost. Still, the entrance to this system at St Irenee remains visible, closed off by an iron grid, under the Calvary, at the end of the esplanade next to the presbytery.
The church itself is also notorious for its antique crypt, under the church. This structure has a well. Apparently, the structure gives access to the ancient catacombs that reside under Lyon.
Catacombs and their Magdalene connection
Ancient texts exist that detail the subterranean passages underneath the village. These formed a funeral network, where the Christians hid, trying to evade persecution by the Romans. The network extended in the direction of Fourvière and had several exits that were explored in the 1975-1979 period. To this day, there is still a second gallery under the hill of Fourvière, going down to the Rhone, in the direction of St George and the abbey of Ainay.
The abbey of Ainay
This type of information is of a historical and archaeological nature and
it seems unlikely that Saunière came to the city to practise some
amateur speleology. If anything, his home territory is far better equipped
to accommodate with that type of fancies. Still, it is clear that in an
underground network, there is a potential for certain “corners”
that were less known, and which may have been of specific interest to some
people. In short, Saunière may have had a specific interest with
We need to mention that the first oratory, in the catacombs under St Irenee, is dedicated to Mary Magdalene. She was of course the patron saint of his church in Rennes-le-Château and specifically many authors have made a lot – if not too much – about her role in the mystery of our priest.
She is also found in Fourvière, where there is a chapel dedicated to her, as well as some other features, most apparently linked with this underground network of catacombs. The basilica of Ainay, another exit of the catacombs, is also under the protection of Mary Magdalene, dedicated to the memory of the 10,000 martyrs who died in the persecution of 202 that occurred in the city. The bodies of the martyrs were buried in the large necropolis between the churches of St Irenee and St Just, connected by the rue des Macchabées.
On a map of 1550, there is mention of a “Magdalene chapel” located in this cemetery, at the site where there is an access to this underground system. The vestiges of this network were inspected during work carried out in 1977. In conclusion, there is 3 to 4 km. of a funerary underground network, under the protection of the Magdalene, whose exists are equally under the protection of Mary Magdalene and which are often small chapels dedicated to the saint.
The presbytery of St Irenee
this does not explain why Saunière came to Lyon and why he came to
this specific district. It may be a mere coincidence. But if, as so many
have argued, Mary Magdalene was at the centre of Saunière’s
mystery, than the presence of this “Magdalene underworld” could
be a primary reason for Saunière’s presence. However, it remains
an assumption, not backed up by any evidence.
Hence, another possibility is that this area was indeed the “home” of the “Société Angelique”, started by the printer Sebastien Gryphe, in the middle of the 16th century. Its history has been detailed elsewhere.
know that our friendly priest met several people in Lyon. He must have known
the booksellers Gacon and Derain-Raclet. Then there are the mails from Mr.
Soulier and Coîndre. The first is a gold smith and a jeweller, Coîndre
(whose first name we do not know) was a trader in precious stones. The two
names appear in letters addressed to Saunière at his Lyon residence.
The letters are somewhat laconic, as they are about “cartons”,
and relate to appointments “in their buildings”, without any
further detail. These people were of course notorious for their discretion,
but we need to ask whether Saunière went to them to sell or buy “precious
We need to add that these two characters are on the membership list of a Martinist company that operated in Lyon. The organisation was attached to a lodge in Catalonia. Let us add that Mr. Soulier also had a private mansion in the sector of St Irenee and visited, with Mr. Coîndre, the widowed Madam Jarau-Mermoutte Jeanne-Madeleine. We will say more about these two people at a later time.
A model in Lyon
1998, we were contacted by a person who claimed to have seen an object that
was practically identical to the by then somewhat famous Saunière’s
model. Our correspondent then put us into contact with a religious congregation
which, he said, held this moulding. Details of the subsequent acquisition
of the model will be for another chapter.
Though the model was in a very bad condition, the asking price nevertheless exceeded our means. At that time, we were on friendly terms with Philippe Marlin – real name Miecret – who carefully followed our work – in retrospect, we can say he was “too carefully” following our research. He then made the unfortunate decision to talk about this offer on his “Serpent Rouge” Yahoo newsgroup. Several members therefore rushed into action, trying to do their utmost to get themselves involved. What I had to Mr. Miecret in confidence was now, all of sudden, being chased by a multitude of people. As the model was accompanied by a small notebook, all fences came off their hinges and the madmen were on the prowl.
It meant that we had to expedite matters and with the help of Spanish friends, we were able to ward off the “Red Serpent” that was infesting our research. However, the significant point of this entire episode is that Saunière ordered his model many years after his stay in Lyon, where he stayed with a widow who was a generous benefactor of the religious order where the “Lyon model” was located. We can only wonder whether this was the main reason for his voyage.