Father de Coma and his abbey
The region of Foix is
notorious for being the Cathar heartland, identified by the citadel
of Montségur. Some kilometres to the west of the town of Foix
sits Le Baulou, a small village that seems to be as far away from the
hustle and bustle of Rennes-le-Château as could possibly be…
yet Baulou was the site where yet another local village priest decided
to erect some monumental building works… afterwards dynamited
on the order of the bishop.
Baulou is close to the tourist path, but seldom if ever receives visitors,
who instead prefer to bypass the site for the subterranean river of
Labouiche, the longest navigable underground river in Europe open to
the public. Nevertheless, the car park in front of its church would
be well equipped to receive the visitors. The modern, well-maintained
car park is in stark contrast with the church itself. Dedicated to Mary
Magdalene, it seems to be eternally shut, the presence of a key not
allowing for an easy access, for perhaps a sign of it having rust into
But it is not the village church that is the site of interest; that
sits along a small track, allowing the crossing of only one car at a
time. Without prior knowledge, no modern visitor would ever stumble
across it. Even then, nothing remains clearly visible that shows the
dramatic past of the site of “Carol”.
a final corner, a large building rises to the right: the only remains
of the building extravaganza that was unleashed in this small valley
by father de Coma, in the middle of the 19th century. Louis de Coma
was born in 1822 in Foix, in a family of nine children. His father,
Bonnaventure, was a famous architect and thus he was a member of a wealthy
family, who had bought the estate of Carol (still signposted today),
a sizeable domain in Baulou.
The family’s history seems to go back to the 16th century; though
wealthy, nothing would suggest that Louis de Coma would ever rise above
the ranks of the ordinary priesthood – and in the end he never
did; only his fame would. He hoped to study at the Seminary of St Sulpice,
in Paris. However, the bishop was of the opinion that priests that studied
in such important places never returned home, hence he was asked to
study for the priesthood closer to home. In 1844, he entered the Jesuit
Seminary in Saint Acheul in Amiens. It meant that de Coma became a Jesuit,
this at a time when Jesuits had little esteem in the eyes of the French
cave with the statue of Mary Magdalene
he remained a teacher until 1855, when his father died and Louis returned
to the family domain in Baulou. Perhaps because of the death of his
father, de Coma decided that his main focus would be to pray for the
souls of the deceased – an area of “expertise” that
continues to thrive in Catholic countries, with families paying for
masses to be said in the name and honour of the deceased of the family.
There were several systems, the most popular being the mechanism in
which one French franc was given, which would e.g. mean that the name
of the deceased was said in a list of many people who had paid the same
amount for a similar homage. But families could also pay for specific
masses, in which an entire ceremony was dedicated towards the attendants
praying for the souls of the deceased. It is clear that this privilege
cost more – 100 French francs to be precise – but it is
equally clear that it brought in extra income for the priest. The entire
endeavour was totally legal, and well-practised in all areas of France,
and beyond. However, it was understood that most priests had to channel
a certain percentage of the profits back to their order, in his case,
the Jesuits. De Coma did step in the footsteps of the Cathars and their
obsession with dead. Apart from the repeated masses for the dead, he
also travelled through France to make people aware of the problem of
death. He wanted to “prepare” people.
De Coma was and became even more a
very wealthy person. Like so many, he wanted to divert this into building
works, to convert Carol into a religious centre. His elder brother,
Ferdinand, was also a well-known architect and thus the ideal candidate
to draw the plans for the new centre.
Building work began in 1856, just after the return of Louis to the family
domain. The church his brother had planned, looks remarkably similar
to that of Lourdes, even though at the time, Bernadette had not yet
seen the manifestation of the Virgin Mary there – and the church
did not yet exist. This suggests that the design of Lourdes was actually
inspired on the church of Carol, an impressive feat for an unknown priest.
The design and execution of the church incorporated a crypt, which was
designed to house the entire family line. On the opposite side of the
church was a grotto, an artificial cave in which a statue of Mary Magdalene
had been placed. To make the grotto more realistic, stalactites and
stalagmites from nearby natural caves were purchased for insertion into
the artificial structure. They remain in place to this day…
Stations of the Cross began right next to the grotto, gently up the
slope of the hill. This was a major deviation from standard practice.
Whereas most stations of the cross in churches are simple wooden depictions
of the perils of Jesus, de Coma built massive stone structures, the
remains of many of which can still be seen standing along the path that
climbs towards the top of the hill. A Calvary was erected at the very
top of the hill, with depictions of Christ on the Cross, John the Evangelist,
the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene at the feet of the cross. Next to
the church, there was room for a monastery or a nunnery, with the hope
that soon, a religious community would occupy the buildings.
As could be expected, the building works were not randomly designed.
The church, the grotto, the Calvary and the church of Mary Magdalene
in the village were all intended to be aligned, roughly north-northeast.
The entire work was to depict “Gethsemane”, the garden of
the Mount of Olives, which was the area where the Passion of Christ
had occurred. Jesus takes his disciples to this area shortly before
he is arrested. He asks his disciples to pray; it is the location where
Judas will betray him.
To make the area in the South of France resemble Palestine, de Coma
ordered that trees and other plants were planted that could be found
in Palestine. Unfortunately, they were ill-equipped for the hard winters
of the French climate and soon died a premature death. Perhaps it was
the first ill omen of the tough times that would come.
Though de Coma had built his church, it would was not – or ever
would be – dedicated. When the Jesuits were disbanded in France
in 1879, de Coma was faced with the question either to flee France and
show his allegiance to the order, or stay and abandon his religious
alliance. It were his religious superiors who advised him to abandon
the Jesuit order and to continue to concentrate on finalising his building
Coma completed his building works in 1885, to plan; he even found certain
monks from the Holy Ghost Community that agreed to settle in his monastery.
In 1885, their leader, Antoine Decressol, signed the contract with de
Coma regards the ownership of Carol. The deeds stated that de Coma was
allowed to live and take care of the buildings, but that he would not
have any other powers over the life of the community. It should therefore
come as no surprise to see that de Coma would never sign certain parts
of the contract, a resilience which greatly angered Decressol. When
de Coma had left on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1886, Decressol and his
men vacated their rooms and abandoned the premises.
For de Coma, it signalled the decline of his standing, though in 1890
he nevertheless still succeeded to become the priest of the Magdalene
church at nearby Baulou. It meant that de Coma was now an enigmatic
village priest, after being a ghostly recluse trying to convert his
private domain into a religious centre. De Coma tried to safeguard his
centre. He spoke to father Lambert, leader of an Apostolic School in
Pamiers, in the hope of making Carol his new home. In the end, the idea
would not be realised.
de Coma was now an old man (68 in 1890), a curiosity surrounded by a
creation of his own making… a lone man, in a very large building,
in a very small place. It is said that the controversy affected his
mind: that he was seen walking around in the clothes of his dead mother.
Still, his domain became the refuge of several priests on the run, when
the Church and State were officially separated in 1904. By 1907, the
85-year old de Coma was no longer the priest of Baulou; on November
14, 1911, his dead, 89-year old body, was found in his bed.
of the calvary on top of the Stations of the Cross
Coma died without a will, which meant that the entire estate became
the possession of the bishop. Nothing happened to the estate, until
one of his successors sold the entire estate to the Baures family in
1956. The conditions of sale, however, detailed that the entire infrastructure
had to be levelled with the ground. Why? The bishop gave the reason
“so that no religious sect would settle there.”
so far the mystery of de Coma would be of extravaganza but nothing more,
the first question needs to be why any sect would want to settle there.
Nothing at first sight would suggest a prime reason why “religious
nutcases” would settle in the domain. No-one had so far and why
would the sale and subsequent occupation of the site facilitate such
Though it is true that between 1911 and 1956, the estates had been used
for a multitude of purposes, nothing extreme had ever occurred. It had
housed soldiers that were on the run, local youths who used the church
as an ideal party venue, and unfortunately also certain people who had
entered the crypt to destroy the tombs of the deceased. Though unfortunate,
it is clear that nothing of the kind would have occurred if the domain
had been inhabited.
Despite the strange request, Henri Baures decided to grant the bishop
his will. However, the first attempt at destruction with dynamite only
rocked the statues. At the second attempt, with much more dynamite installed,
when the entire village was covered in snow, the church was demolished;
the Stations of the Cross leading up the hill were also destroyed.
field where the church once stood is still riddled with stones. The
old building sites can still be clearly identified and it is clear that
the site has never been converted into any other purpose… The
path of the Stations of the Cross is small and abandoned. Overgrown.
Not visited. The majority of the Calvary on top remains, but it is clear
that it is also partly destroyed. There are scattered stones throughout,
openings appear in certain places, perhaps leading into nowhere, perhaps
leading in subterranean rooms. At the back of the Calvary is an opening,
accessible by small steps. De Coma wanted to use this area as the crypt
for the monks, but the two priests that did die during their stay, were
buried in the side entrance of the family’s crypt in the church.
Rumours argue that the bodies of Resistance fighters were interred here
during the Second World War, though it is claimed that after the war,
they were reburied elsewhere.
most intact, apart from the residence, is the grotto of Mary Magdalene.
The crypt, nearby, is also largely intact, though now well covered up
with branches so that further desecration or access is discouraged.
De Coma was a village priest, who constructed an amazing domain. Though
little remains, the total scope of the work is still easily visible.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that rumours have been aired
that there must be a relationship between de Coma and Saunière,
the enigmatic priest of Rennes-le-Château. It must be said that
their careers are similar, though de Coma would never become the subject
of such controversy or interest as his colleague further east. Saunière
became village priest in 1885, at a time when De Coma was winding his
building works down.
Did they ever meet? It is hard to say and the evidence suggests they
did not – though absence of evidence, is never evidence of absence.
There are definite parallels: both were village priests of a church
dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Both churches were located in the Cathar
heartland. More importantly, both received money from the Count de Chambord:
de Coma received 4000 French Francs, Saunière 3000. De Coma named
his estate Gethsemane, Saunière his Bethany – both areas
where the Passion of Christ would occur.
crypt of Carol, where de Coma's family was buried.
with such parallels, the question needs to be asked whether both priests
were part of a “movement”. If they were, what kind of movement?
It is said that Saunière wanted to make his estate a “retreat”
for ill or retired priests and de Coma’s building plans would
have allowed for similar use. This would not single any of them out
for special treatment.
The strangest parallel is that Saunière’s enigma became
known to the general public in 1956, the year when the bishop of Pamiers
ordered the destruction of de Coma’s legacy. Coincidence, or design?
In the end, de Coma is a strange inversion
of Saunière. Whereas it is unknown where Saunière got
his money from, the enigma of de Coma is what happened to his money.
There are no records that can be easily consulted. But it is known that
de Coma’s income was more substantial than what he and his family
spent on his domain. But the final enigma does not rest with de Coma,
but with a bishop who for some reason – excluding the illogical
one – felt the estate had to be dynamited. Did it perhaps contain
something the bishop did not want the world to see? If so, what?
article appeared in Frontier Magazine 3.1 (1997) and Les Carnets
Secrets 5 (2006)