Notre Dame cathedral is a symbol of the French people that has stood for 850 years. The devastating fire that engulfed the church last spring broke hearts around the country, and indeed, around the world, as Notre Dame represents everything steadfast and spiritual in the French soul.
Donations poured in to help restore the cathedral once the blaze was under control, which consumed the roof and made the church instantly unsafe. Parts of the structure remain so unsteady that this year, for the one and only time since the French Revolution, Christmas Mass could not be held inside the cathedral. Instead, mass was held at a church near the Louvre Museum.
Immediately after the blaze, investigators began hunting for a cause, and last June prosecutors suspected that a carelessly tended cigarette, or perhaps a faulty electrical outlet, were possible causes. To date, no firm conclusion has been reached except that the fire was not set intentionally. Investigators spoke with about 100 witnesses and examined approximately 1,000 pieces of evidence looking for an exact cause, and so far have said only that the blaze was likely the result of negligence, but not arson.
What matters now, to Catholic officials, government, and of course the people of France, is that Notre Dame is restored. But that is by no means a foregone conclusion, simply because the will to see it happen is strong. The structure is extremely delicate, and work to restore it is laborious, and very expensive.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he hopes the cathedral will be open in time for the Olympics, which Paris is hosting in 2024. Church officials would like that as well, but not all are optimistic that it will happen.
A representative of the church, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who is rector of the cathedral, told the Associated Press recently that, “there’s a 50 percent chance not all the structure can be saved…today, it is not out of danger. It will be out of danger when we take out the remaining scaffolding.” The scaffolding is jeopardizing the cathedral’s vaults, he explained. “There is a 50 percent chance of the scaffolding falling into the three vaults… the building is still very fragile.”
“Fragile” is not a word one wants to use to describe a venerated building like Notre Dame. Its historic place in French society, and indeed its draw as a tourist destination, brings millions to its doors each year. According to some estimates, Notre Dame is the most popular historic destination in all of Europe. It is certainly the most popular in France; its visitor numbers annually outstrip even those of the Louvre Museum, as many as 14 million per year.
When the fire broke out last April, the world mourned with France, and a foundation was swiftly organized to receive donations to help with the restoration. However it is an enormously expensive process, and some say not as much money has arrived as initially promised — while 400 million Euros were pledged, not all have arrived to the foundation’s accounts.
Still, what concerns Chauvet at this moment is seeing the scaffolding removed. It was crisscrossing the back of the building when the fire broke out because renovations were underway. So far, about 50,000 tubes of the scaffolding have been safely removed, but, Chauvet said, “We need to remove completely the scaffolding in order to make the building safe so in 2021 we will probably start the restoration of the cathedral. Once the scaffolding is removed, we need to assess the state of the cathedral, the quantity of stones to be removed and replaced.”
Of course Chauvet would like to see the church open in time for the Olympics, but he is less confident than Macron that it will be operational by 2024.
Still, French citizens are hopeful that their treasured church will be available to them again soon. One young man who spoke to Associated Press said that, when he learned of the fire, he thought, “It’s not possible, and I took my bike and when I arrived (there) I was crying.”
He added solemnly, “We are French. We are going to try to rebuild Notre Dame as it was before, because it is a symbol.” A symbol of everything that’s great in the French spirit, in the country’s history, and in the citizenry itself.