The village church at Rennes le Château, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, has an extremely 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.
One of the new features was the Latin inscription Terribilis est locus iste above the front doors, taken from the Common Dedication of a Church, which translates as: “This is a place of awe”; the rest of the dedication reads “this is God’s house, the gate of heaven, and it shall be called the royal court of God.” The first part of the dedication is above the front doors – the rest inscribed on the arches over the two front doors of the church
Inside the church, one of the added figures was of a devil 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.
The new figures and statues in the church were not specially made, but were chosen by Saunière from a catalogue published by Giscard, sculptor and painter in 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 orangery. 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.
Following Sauniere’s renovations and redecoratations, the church was re-dedicated in 1897 by his bishop, Monsignor Billard.