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Sauniere's Rennes-le-Château Church Dedicated to Mary Magdalene

Sauniere's Church and Garden

Sauniere's Church and Garden

The Rennes-le-Château village church is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. It has an complex history, having been rebuilt several times. The earliest church of which there is any evidence on the site may date to the 8th century. However, this original church was almost certainly in ruins during the 10th or 11th century, when another church was built upon the site - remnants of which can be seen in Romanesque pillared arcades on the north side of the apse. This survived in poor repair until the 19th century, when it was renovated by the local priest, Bérenger Saunière. Surviving receipts and existing account books belonging to Saunière reveal that the renovation of the church, including works on the presbytery and cemetery, cost 11,605 Francs over a ten-year period between 1887 and 1897.

Mary Magdalene Church after Saunieres Renovations - circa 1907

The Mary Magdalene Church shortly after Sauniere's Renovations - circa 1907

Rear view of the Rennes-le-Château village church

Inside the church, one of the added figures was of a demon holding up the holy water stoup, a rare, though not unheard of addition found in French churches in this particular style. Its original head was stolen by persons unknown in 1996 and has never been recovered.

Although some of the artworks in the church are unique to Sauniere, the new statues were not specially made, but were chosen by Saunière from a catalogue published by Giscard, a sculptor and painter from Toulouse who - among other things - offered statues and sculptural features for church refurbishment.

Saunière also funded the construction of another structure dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Named after his church, he built the Tour Magdala on the edge of the village which he used as his library, situated on a belvedere that connected it to an orangey. The tower has a promenade linking it to the Villa Bethania, which was not actually used by the priest. He stated during his trial that it was intended as a home for retired priests. Surviving receipts and existing account books belonging to Saunière reveal that the construction of his estate including the Tour Magdala and Villa Bethania (including the purchases of land) between 1898 and 1905 cost 26,417 Francs. There may have been other expenses not recorded.

The Mary Magdalene Church after Saunieres Renovations - circa 1907

The Mary Magdalene Church after Sauniere's Renovations - circa 1907

Following Sauniere's renovations and redecoration, the church was re-dedicated in 1897 by his bishop, Monsignor Billard.

In 1910-1911 Bérenger Saunière was summoned by the bishopric to appear before an ecclesiastical trial to face charges of trafficking in masses, was found guilty and suspended of the priesthood. When asked to produce his account books he refused to attend his trial.

Priests of Rennes-le-Chateau

Abbé Bigou 1719 - 1794

Abbé Antoine Bigou was born in France in 1719. In 1774, he arrived in Rennes-le-Château to replace his uncle, Abbé Jean Bigou - 1702 to 1776, as the parish priest. Antoine continued his uncle's close relationship with the village nobility, the Hautpouls. The large Château, which was rebuilt by the Hautpoul family in the 16th century is still standing today, though it is badly rundown and partly in ruins. The chateau was acquired by the Fatin family from their descendants in 1947 and they are still the owners today. (2013) The fire that ravaged it in 1915 has caused an advanced state of decay, which has been worsening ever since, leaving much of it in ruin. I managed to get a glimpse inside Chateau Hautpoul and take some photographs. (Read Chateau Article)

Old photograph of Chateau Hautpoul

Old photograph of Chateau Hautpoul

During the time Antoine Bigou was priest of the village, Marie de Nègre d' Ables was living in the chateau until she died in 1781. She had married Francois d`Hautpoul who was the first Marquis de Blanchefort and who's ancestors took part in the crusades. It was he who had informed Marie of the secret. Part of the secret seems to have included certain important documents of which their whereabouts today is unknown. With the family connection with the crusades it is possible the 'secret' may have originated from the Holy Land.

Bigou is relevant to the mystery as he seems to have been the one that hid something in the Mary Magdalene church that Saunière later discovered during his renovations.

The church was re-dedicated to Mary Magdalene after the 14th century, previously being dedicated to Saint Marie. Originally it was never the main church of the village but a private chapel of the chateau, the main village church being St Pierre aux Liens or Saint Peters, until it became a ruin in 1380 when the village was attacked.

It is thought that Marie entrusted the Abbé Bigou with a secret before she died, adding a stipulation that the secret was so important it must be preserved at all costs, and the priest was to pass it on to someone else he could trust before his death.

Marie Blanchefort died on that reoccurring date of January 17th - 1781 and is thought to have been buried in the crypt or, which is more likely, the Rennes-le-Chateau graveyard. The legend has it, that Bigou had inscribed a tombstone with a strange inscription that some say was a coded clue to the 'secret' or its whereabouts, and that Saunière eventually decoded, or at least made a copy, before erasing the inscription. A stone that bears no markings still exists and is thought by some to be the actual Blanchefort tombstone.

Others believe that the Abbé Bigou passed on the secret via Parchments he concealed in the church which the Abbé Saunière discovered during his renovations. There are two locations said to be the hiding place used by Bigou, the first was in an ancient pillar, one of two supporting the heavy stone altar top. The second is in a secret compartment of a wooden baluster, once part of the pulpit stairs.

Bigou had to flee France because in 1789 the French Revolution had began and in the following years it swept across the country, looting, pillaging and murdering anyone they believed to be potential enemies, of whatever sex, age, or condition. The French Revolution was the death knell for the old system of monarchy in Europe. It began in ernest in September of 1793 and lasted until the fall of Robespierre on July 27, 1794. During the last six weeks of the Terror alone (the period known as the "Red Terror") nearly fourteen hundred people were guillotined in Paris alone.

Quoting from Jean Luc's book Saunière's Secret' - Under the chapter heading: As related by Marie Constant Amand d'Hautpoul, tutor to the Come de Chambord.

"For Bigou had a secret. He held documents which he could not – under any circumstances – dare risk having found in his possession. Eleven years before, in 1781, my great-aunt, Marie de Négri d’Able, chatelaine of Rennes-le- Château, marquise d’Hautpoul de Blanchefort, had passed away. When she felt that her end was near, she had sent for Antoine Bigou, to hear her final confession. She was no longer on good terms with her children. In fact, her daughters, my cousins, had taken her to court for squandering the family fortune. There was nothing left for them to inherit. All her remaining goods and chattels were bequeathed to Bigou. And – most particularly – she entrusted to him her ancestors’ entire family archive.

Our family, the Hautpouls de Blanchefort, is one of the oldest in the Languedoc. We’d survived the period of the Cathares and we’d been linked with the Templars. My ancestor, Bertrand de Blanchefort, was third Grand Master of the Order. It seems that the family held some sort of secret in the form of documents – and these were among the archive which my great-aunt left to Bigou. They had been handed down from generation to generation, their origin always shrouded in the deepest secrecy.

... He’d (Bigou) succeeded his own uncle as priest of Rennes-le-Château and so he knew perfectly well that there were secrets hidden here. When the Revolution broke out in 1789, some of the local families opted for exile – and left their fortunes in the care of the Abbé Bigou, whom they knew to be totally trustworthy. Certainly, they were hoping to return when the danger was past. No-one imagined, for a moment, that priests would be troubled. And so, in 1792, when Bigou was forced, in his turn, to take flight, he was in possession of immense resources."

Saunière's Secret by Jean-Luc Robin - a highly recommended read

1791 - 1792

Abbé Jean Antoine Camp is pastor of Rennes-le-Chateau.


Abbé Marsan is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


Abbé Rouger is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


From a report of 1806 about the cemetery that adjoins the parish church:

"already in 1806 it left much to be desired, for every day you see animals grazing there, due to the collapsed wall and because there is no gate."


Parish Report on the bell tower: "part of the tower collapsed and a sum of 200 francs was hardly enough for the repairs."


Abbé Sabarthes is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


Abbé Sadourny is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


A report from the paris register:

The cemetery "will be enclosed by four walls with a lockable door and with a stone cross on a plinth and two steps in the middle of the cemetery, but there are no paths."

The cross mentioned could be this cross that was later placed on Saunière's grave in 1917.


Abbé Pagès is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


Abbé Blanc is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


Abbé Pons is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.


During the occasion of the celebration of the king's feast, in 1st may, the church bell broke.


A report on the bell tower:

"a tower, 2.78 meters square, is used for the bell tower, there are two bells, one of 350 kg, the other 100 kg, also a clock."


The bell that broke in 1838 is replaced at a cost of 200 francs.


1st July 2 Jean Vie priest of Rennes-les-Bains dies.

Henri Boudet is appointed parish priest of Rennes - les - Bains.


Alfred Saunière, Saunière's brother, is ordained a priest and is appointed assistant priest of Alzonne.


Abbé Cezac is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Alfred Saunière joins the Jesuits. As jesuits were forbidden to teach, Alfred returned to to his diocese and was appointed teacher at the secondary school in Narbonne.

Saunière was ordained as a priest in June 1879 and was assistant priest at Alet from July 16th 1879 to June 1882.


Abbé Mocquin is priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.

Bishop Felix Arsène Billiard is appointed the Bishop of Carcassonne on the 17th February.

Billard was born on October 23rd 1829. On October 4th 1853 he was ordained a priest. His first appointment was priest of Saint Remy de Dieppe, then at Saint Patrice de Rouen, and finally to the cathedral of Rouen. He became bishop of Narbonne, canon holder and vicar general, before he was appointed Bishop of Carcassonne. He succeeded Bishop Leuillieux.


From June 1882 to 1885 Saunière was the priest in the village of Le Clat.


Antoine Croc is appointed as priest of Rennes le Château.

The bell tower had to be repaired as it was "...cracked on its four sides."


In 1885 Abbé Saunière is appointed parish priest of Rennes-le-Château.

Abbé François Bérenger Saunière 1852 to 1917

He rarely used his first name.


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