Today, the Villa Bethania is partially tucked away between trees and bushes. When it was completed in 1905, it must have been quite a different sight. Rennes-le-Château at the the time was a very rural village with some 200 inhabitants that lived in simple country houses, dropped around a delapidated castle. Saunière’s neo-gothic villa must have stood out like a cherry on a cow pie. Construction of the house started in 1901. It was baptized Villa Bethania, after the village in the Holy Land where Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. Contrary to what everybody in the village expected, the Abbé never moved into the villa. He lived and slept in the old Presbytery for the rest of his life as did Marie Dénarnaud his housekeeper. Saunière stated several times that he built the Villa as a home for retired priests. However, no retired priest ever lived there.
Villa Bethania was used by Saunière for receiving guests. The priest appears to have entertained an endless row of people in his Villa. The bills he paid for the shipments of liquor and delicacies from as far away as Jamaica have been preserved. Staggering amounts of drink and food were received and consumed. The Abbé was an excellent host with a matching cook: Marie Dénarnaud. Among the guests, villagers claim, were high-society figures like Emma Calvé, the beautiful French opera diva. It is often claimed Calvé and Saunière had an affair of sorts. Proof has never been found. Still, it is a fact that villagers of Rennes-le-Château have testified hearing a strong and melodic opera voice singing during some of his lavish parties. Also on the guest list appears to have been a member of the Habsburg family, which according to some, is endorsed by the fact that Saunière exchanged letters with the Banque Fritz Dörge in Budapest. It is noted that Saunière received a big gift from the Countess of Chambord who was a Habsburg. She donated him 3,000 Francs in 1886 after he had been suspended for preaching against the republic. De Chambord was the widow of Henry V, last of the Bourbon dynasty whose stubbornness lost him the French throne (he refused to accept the tricolor as a symbol of France). It is not hard to imagine why she would have liked Saunière. It is the only traceable big gift Saunière received since Marie Dénarnaud burnt all of the Abbé’s bank statements just before and after he died. From leftover correspondence published by Claire Corbu and Antoine Captier it is known that Abbé Saunière had contact with no less than 7 different banks. There’s the Banque Salvaire in Limoux, the Banque Coll, the Banque Alex Martin et Cie in Paris, the Société Générale in Carcasonne, the Banque D. Richou Vve et Fils in Angers, the Banque Russe du Commerce et de l’Industrie in Paris and the already mentioned Banque Fritz Dörge in Budapest.
Perhaps the Villa Bethania tells us something about Saunière’s beliefs. Over the front door he had two stained glass windows installed depicting two firy hearts. The two symbols refer directly to the first apparition of the Virgin Mary in France in the 19th century. It happened on 18th July 1830 in the Rue du Bac in Paris. Mary appeared to Catherine Labouré, an illiterate farmer’s daughter that had joined the Filles de la Charité de St. Vincent de Paul as a novice in March of that same year. Mary told Catherine that the French throne would be overthrown which promptly happened 10 days later in the Three-Day revolt. Charles X had to make way for the constitutional monarchy led by his cousin Louis-Philippe and so ended the reign of the House of Bourbon. On 27th November Mary appeared to Catherine for the second time. This time the Virgin was surrounded by 12 stars and carried a ball made of gold. At her feet was a green snake and a half white ball. Mary showed Catherine a symbol of an M below a cross over two firy hearts. One heart was pierced by a sword the other had thorns. Mary predicted medals would be made of this symbol that would protect the bearer. Production of the medals started in 1832 and by 1876 it is estimated that a billion copies had been issued. The fact that Saunière put the symbols on display over the main entrance of his guest house might be significant. This and the fact that he traveled to Lourdes shortly before his death might indicate that he was less of a heretic than is sometimes assumed and that he was a devout believer in Mary. At the time of the apparitions in Lourdes, Bérenger was 6 years old. At that age in the catholic environment of the time, it must have made quite an impression on him. Or did it…? Several researchers, like M.P. Caroll and Ludo Noens have suggested that the messages of Mary were a little too politically charged and convenient for certain esoteric and masonic groups. They suggest perhaps faith was helped a little here. What is the significance of the link with St. Vincent de Paul founder of the Lazarists that had a head-quarter in Notre Dame de Marceille? Do these hearts link the mystery back to the Bourbons?
That Saunière never really moved into the Villa is hard to believe. It becomes however more plausible when you know that Marie Dénarnaud too refused to stay in the house after the Abbé’s death. In fact she even refused to sleep there after she had finally sold off the premises to the Corbu family or in the 7 years after that when she still lived with them. Only when she had had a stroke and lost all sight, she let herself be carried into the villa by the Corbu’s. Saunière died in a simple bedroom in the Presbytery in the room that is now the museum gift shop. Marie Dénarnaud died in the Villa Bethania.
Noel Corbu did some serious digging on the estate as did his successor Henry Buthion. When he failed to find anything more than two unidentifiable skeletons he transferred the Villa Bethania into the Hotel-Restaurant la Tour and in 1956 published the first version of Saunière’s enigmatic story in a series of interviews in the ‘Depeche du Midi’, the regional newspaper. The Hotel-Restaurant was a hit and what happened to the story is history.