Saunière was born in 1852, in the in the village of Montazels, deep in the Languedoc region of France. He died on the 22nd of January, 1917, having suffered a mysterious illness 5 days earlier, on the 17th of January. He was 65 years old.
He was the eldest of 7 children and attended the seminary in Narbonne before being appointed Abbe of Rennes le Chateau on 1 June, 1885. His brother Alfred was also a man of God, having been ordained a priest in 1878.
Abbe Sauniere was a rebellious priest who was fiercely pro-Monarchy. His anti-Republican lectures from the pulpit in his Church of St Mary Magdalene resulted in his being expelled from the diocese between December 1885 and July 1886.
Upon his return, Abbe Saunière appears to have discovered a secret or treasure, hidden in a pillar, or under a stone slab, near the old alter in his church. His documents the occasion in his diary on the 21st of September, 1891, which translates as discovered a Tomb. At night it rained. Just what he discovered remains a mystery. He appears to have uncovered information or relics relating to Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, a royal burial, the Priory of Sion, gold, documents revealing a blood line, or other.
Still other evidence suggest he may have been instructed where to look, and that the discovery was no accident. Proponents of this theory point to a connection with the Hapsburgs, whose dynasty of world dominance was in decline and needed to reassert their stature in society, perhaps by reclaiming documents that discuss certain heretical religious truths. While some evidence suggests that members of the Hapsburgs did in fact meet with Abbe Sauniere, proof of the association is generally unsubstantiated.
The conventional story, as documented in the Priory Documents, which were deposited in the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale) between 1964 and 1967, indicates that the priest found two parchments, written in old French, which he took to Saint Sulpice in Paris, where Abbe Hoffet, a young priest with speciality skills in cryptography, is alleged to have deciphered them. Recent insights from Holy Blood and Holy Grail co-author Michael Baigent indicate that the priest who actually decoded the parchments was English, the Oxford based Cannon Alfred Lilly (1860 – 1948), who was called to France to assist Hoffet in the decoding of the complicated documents. Baigent, in his 2006 novel, The Jesus Papers, reveals that the secret that Lilly uncovered in the Parchments was that Jesus Christ was still alive in 45 AD.
While in Paris, Abbe Sauniere is alleged to have socialised with the Parisian elite, including opera singer Emma Calve. It is said that he visited the Lourve and purchased copies of three paintings, one of which was Nicolas Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcadia, which depicts a landscape near Rennes le Château. This research is most closely associated with writer and Holy Blood and Holy Grail co-author, Henry Lincoln.
Upon his return from Paris, Abbe Sauniere commemorated his discovery in lavish restorations throughout his village and church, spending far beyond his means. As a result, he was dispelled from the priesthood under suspicion of selling masses that he never preformed, for profit. Strangely, he died in debt, but had still planned to conduct further expensive and elaborate restorations.
One of his major restorations, The Tour Magdala, or Tower of the Magdalene, contains a single window that points unambiguously to a grotto over a kilometre in the distance. Its ancient place name translates is 'The Burial Site of Mary Magdalene'. He incorporates the Magdalene's feast date, the number 22, in many of his restorations. Oddly, Saunière died on the 22nd of January, having suffered an illness on the 17th; at once encapsulating two dates that occur over and over again in the legend of Rennes le Chateau (17 and 22). This coincidence has caused many to speculate that his death, like that of his mentor, Abbe Boudet, and his friend Abbe Gelies, may not have been an accident.
Prior to his death, Abbe Sauniere appears to have passed his secret to his trusted companion, Marie Denarnaud. The priest appointed her his housekeeper when she was still a teenager. The villagers referred to her as "the priest's Madonna", and the difference in their ages combined with their close relationship, spurred many to suspect they were more than friends. It is widely believed that any secrets the priest maintained were passed on to Marie.
Although Dan Brown did not use the Rennes le Chateau mystery in his novel The Da Vinci Code, he named his fictional Priory of Sion character Jacques Sauniere (curator of the Louvre) after the village's priest.