Notre Dame Celebrates 1st Mass Since Fire Devastated The Historic Paris Cathedral

Jun 16, 2019
Originally published on June 17, 2019 11:57 am

Exactly two months to the day after a fire blazed through the roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the church celebrated its first Mass on Saturday.

Instead of his traditional miter hat, the archbishop of Paris wore a white, hard hat, along with about 30 others in attendance.

The Mass was closed to the public for security reasons, and those there were mostly clergy and people who work on the site.

France's Culture Minister Franck Riester told French TV on Friday that the structure is still "in a fragile state," and that the partially damaged vault is not secure and could collapse.

Workers won't be able to secure the vault until debris from the fire is completely cleared from the cathedral floor. Research teams are using robots to slowly gather and sort the debris.

Thierry Zimmer, deputy director at the Research Laboratory of Historic Monuments, who is working on the cathedral, said it's "miraculous" that none of the art or objects in the cathedral were damaged by the fire or falling wreckage.

The group attending Mass early Saturday evening gathered in the Chapel of the Virgin next to the choir. It was also a symbolic service in that the cathedral celebrates the consecration of its altar each year on June 16.

The service was broadcast on YouTube by KTO, the French Catholic TV network. Sweeping views of the burned out rooftop and a pile of charred wood and rubble contrasted with the group singing hymns.

In his homily, Archbishop Michel Aupetit described the more than 850-year-old Notre Dame as "the fruit of human genius, a masterpiece of man," appreciated by everyone, not just Christians.

"This cathedral is a religious place. That's its sole purpose," Aupetit said.

He said there are no tourists at the cathedral.

"All who enter here do not come as tourists," he said. "Many come maybe out of curiosity without knowing why, but they are not the same when they leave because there is a presence here."

Leaving the service, Monsignor Pascal Gollnisch said it was a "shock" to see the destruction as well as how much was still in tact. He works with Christians in the Near and Middle East and gifted a cross carved from the stone of an Aleppo church he said was destroyed by a missile.

"I think it's a beautiful spiritual link between Notre Dame and all the churches in the Near East that have been damaged or destroyed," Gollnisch said. "Notre Dame was an accident, but it's the same shock to see our cathedral in this state."

The plaza in front of the cathedral remains closed to the public, but people still gather at the barriers to get a limited view of the damaged church and to take selfies.

Clergy eventually want to install a temporary chapel on the plaza with a replica of the cathedral's statue of the Virgin Mary so that pilgrims can visit during reconstruction.

French President Emmanuel Macron has set an ambitious deadline of five years to reconstruct and reopen Notre Dame in time for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. That plan and his suggestion to replace Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century spire with a modern incarnation have drawn criticism from the public and experts.

Nearly $1 billion in donations have been pledged from around the world for reconstruction, but the French Ministry of Culture said less than 10 percent of that has actually been received.

: 6/17/19

In an earlier version of this story, Monsignor Pascal Gollnisch was identified as Monsignor Patrick Gollnisch.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the weekend, Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral celebrated its first Mass two months to the day after a fire destroyed the roof and toppled the spire. The Mass marks one of the first steps in a years-long path to rebuilding. Jake Cigainero reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CLERGY: (Singing in French).

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Priests in white robes and matching hard hats entered a side chapel of Notre Dame in a solemn procession. The Mass was limited to about 30 people for security reasons. Most of those in attendance were clergy members and some of the reconstruction team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED CLERGY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED CLERGY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in French).

CIGAINERO: The service was broadcast by French Catholic TV network KTO. Sweeping views of the burned-out roof and a pile of charred wood and rubble were an eerie contrast to serene hymns. In his homily, Archbishop Michel Aupetit described the 850-year-old gothic cathedral as the fruit of human genius, a masterpiece of man appreciated by everyone, not just Christians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHEL AUPETIT: (Through interpreter) This cathedral is a religious place. No one who comes here is a tourist. Many come maybe out of curiosity without knowing why, but they are not the same when they leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS CHIMING)

CIGAINERO: Speaking at the diocese after the service, Aupetit said it was bizarre celebrating Mass in a hard hat, but that it was a moment of hope for the church and the 150 engineers, researchers, architects and journeymen currently working at the cathedral.

AUPETIT: (Through interpreter) The head architect told me the teams working at Notre Dame were very enthusiastic. They no doubt found the same spirit that presided over the construction of this cathedral, a spirit of communion.

CIGAINERO: The plaza in front of Notre Dame remains closed to the public. But crowds still gather at the barriers to glimpse the damage and to take selfies. Jack Matthews said he was happy to see the Mass bring life back to the battered cathedral, even if only a small group was allowed inside. He was emotional seeing Notre Dame for the first time since the fire.

JACQUES MARILLEAU: (Speaking French).

CIGAINERO: "It took me two months before I could come here," he says. "I have a lot of precious memories of family and music from this cathedral." The French culture minister Franck Riester told French media the structure is still in a fragile state. He said the partially damaged ceiling vaults are not secure and still at risk of collapsing. Before securing the vaults, workers have to finish clearing the debris from the cathedral floor. That's a slow-going process, according to Thierry Zimmer, the deputy director of a research lab analyzing the rubble. Zimmer says the analyses will help them choose new material for reconstruction as well as offer clues about the origins of the fire.

THIERRY ZIMMER: We are not sure that we have completely saved the cathedral. We will be able to know this maybe in two months.

CIGAINERO: Construction isn't expected to begin until next year. For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.