The priest of Rennes-le-Château. Bérenger Saunière, having made some startling discoveries during the restoration of the village church in 1891, was sent by the Bishop of Carcassonne to talk to the Catholic Chuirch authorities at Saint Sulpice in Paris. There he was fêted by some of the most famous French personalities of the day and started friendships which resulted in these people continuing to make visits to him in Rennes-le-Chateau for many years afterwards.
On his return to the village Saunière started spending money on a vast scale for an individual. He personally paid for a three kilometre-long road to be engineered up into the hills to link Rennes to the main road system of France. He also installed a running water and sewage system for the village which was still an unusual advantage in the nineteenth century. He had a large house built called the Villa Bethania where he could entertain his important international guests. An attractive tower called the Tour Magdala (the Magdalen Tower – see photograph) was constructed in a spectacular location with far-reaching views where he housed the library he had acquired.
But the most strange way in which he spent his money was in the restoration of the church which can be seen by present-day visitors to the area. Instead of simple reconstruction and redecoration, the church has been crammed full of the most bizarre statues and paintings which the simple exterior would not suggest. Above the entrance porch the tympanum is decorated with roses and crosses (Rosicrucian connections?). Just inside the door the holy water stoup is carried on the shoulders of a hideously grimacing devil which seems out of place in a holy building.
At the west end of the church the fine semi-circular fresco has various odd details. Around the walls are painted the Stations of the Cross, again with curious inconsistencies. And the magnificent altar carries a complex story. Just beside the Sacristy there is apparently a secret room approached through the back of some cupboards but to which the public are not allowed access.
The church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen whom the Catholic Church regarded as a sinner but who was forgiven and converted by Jesus. In this connection it is claimed that the Cathars had proof that this Mary had become the actual wife of Christ and had borne him a daughter whose descendants, through the Merovingian royal line, were the forbears of the Cathars.
Next week I will tell you about some of the other mysteries linked to Rennes-le-Chateau.