When a village transforms its Church into an escape game and the chapel into a cabaret

A hostess welcomes the public for a show at La Fourmi Rouge cabaret in the Romanesque chapel of Saint-Barthélemy in Laàs, south-west France.


In order to safeguard and finance the restoration of its religious building, the Municipality of Laàs, in Béarn, is opening it up to new uses.

Behind the 11th century Romanesque facade, a stage and red armchairs: the chapel of a village in Béarn has reinvented itself as a cabaret so as not to fall into ruin, a fate which threatens 5,000 buildings according to the Observatory of Religious Heritage.

To finance the restoration of these buildings which constitute a “common good” with a “federating dimension”, a senatorial report recommended, at the beginning of June, to open them “to new uses beyond worship”.

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Laàs, a town of some 150 inhabitants south of Orthez, whose church will soon host an escape game, has taken the lead for a long time. “It would have been easy to sell the stones. But when you have the responsibility of being elected, what more beautiful work than to restore this heritage to bequeath it to future generations? ”, argues the Mayor, Jacques Pédehontaà, in place for 40 years.

Desecrated and then bought at the end of the 19th century by a wealthy family from the region, the Saint-Barthélémy chapel was abandoned for decades before being taken over by the municipality in 1992, while the bell tower and a wall had already collapsed. For eight years, more than 2000 young girl scouts have rebuilt the chapel during summer camps. The name of the cabaret it now houses, “La fourmi rouge”, pays homage to their work and the colour of their uniform.

"Sound and light"

The Church of Laàs, built in 1877 to compensate for the lack of places for the parishioners in the chapel, also threatened to fall into ruin for lack of restoration. "In 2008, we undertook to cost the renovation of the church and the development of the chapel: 900,000 euros", remembers the mayor. That is nine times the annual budget of the village. The municipal council then thought about what it would be possible to create in the church, which was still functional, in addition to the performance hall already planned in the deconsecrated chapel.

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The elected officials are approaching Luc Bonin, creator of a temporary “escape-church” in the Saint-Seurin Cathedral in Bordeaux, to set up a similar project in partnership with the parish council and the priest of Laàs. The game scenario, taken from the Bible, is validated by Mgr Aillet, Bishop of Bayonne.

In the end, 1.4 million euros are collected for the renovation of the two religious buildings and the creation in the church of the escape game but also of a sound and light show on the history of the commune, which self-finances this budget to the tune of 400,000 euros. The rest comes from subsidies from the Department, the Region and the State. The delivery of the transformed church is scheduled for 2024.

The cabaret, it has been launched since March in the chapel despite some protests among the inhabitants, who denounce a “profanation” of the place. "We are ground breakers so it's normal to take a few bullets," says its director, Myriam Delcroix, at the head of a traveling show troupe since 2015. Jacques Pédehonta is convinced that the example of the reuse of places of cult in Laàs "can inspire many other small towns".