Relics Rescued as Notre Dame Cathedral Burns

by David O'Neill


On April 15, the world watched as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned. The Cathedral—whose construction began in 1260­­—caught fire at 6:20 P.M. Security guards could not locate a fire at the time, but the evening Mass for the Monday of Holy Week was called off and the church was evacuated. Twenty-three minutes later, the fire was seen­­­­ burning between the stone vault ceiling and the lead roof. The flames had invaded a lattice of over 1,300 extremely flammable wood beams, which dated back to the Middle Ages. The fire burned for five hours as 400 firefighters attempted to quell the flames and rescue sacred artifacts from within the church. French authorities have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

The fire led to the destruction of the roof and the famous flèche, the oak spire which stood over the crossing and which itself dated back to the 19th century­­. As Notre Dame burned, the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Michel Aupetit tweeted a message to all of the priests in Paris, stating, “The firefighters are still fighting to save the towers of Notre Dame. The frame, the roof, and the flèche are destroyed. Let us pray. If you would like, you can ring the bells of your churches to invite people to prayer.”


As the flames rose higher, groups of young Catholics gathered at the Fountain of St. Michael, praying Rosaries and singing hymns to Notre Dame de Paris­­, or Our Lady of Paris.


The firefighters were not only concerned with saving the structure of the church, but also the Blessed Sacrament and the many holy relics contained within Notre Dame. Rev. Jean Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris firefighters, was on his way to dinner when he heard the news about the fire and rushed to the cathedral. In an interview he stated that he had two priorities­­, “the relics of the Passion and the Blessed Sacrament.”


Some of the most prized relics in Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns, were trapped within the burning church. Because of the priceless nature of the crown, it was locked in a safe that requires a key and a code­­—which are held by separate people for added security. While Fr. Fournier tracked down the two individuals to save the Crown of Thorns, a group of firefighters formed a human chain to save other relics and icons from within Notre Dame. Fr. Fournier was able to open the safe and save the Crown of Thorns as the ceiling fell around him.


Next, Fr. Fournier set out to save the Blessed Sacrament­­. After rescuing the Eucharist, Fr. Fournier used the Real Presence to bless the burning building. He said “I asked Jesus…to fight the flames and preserve the building dedicated to His Mother.”


The next morning, it was revealed that much of the interior of the cathedral­­—the famous rose windows, the high altar and altar cross, the organ, and even many of the pews, remained intact.


Following the fire, President Macron has vowed to rebuild the Cathedral within five years. Generous donors from around the world have already raised nearly a billion euros to contribute to the renovation efforts. Under French law, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and all other churches built before 1905 are property of the French State, rather than the Catholic Church. The French government will therefore have the ability to dictate how renovations are carried out.


In a radio interview two days following the fire, Msgr. Aupetit criticized Macron’s response to the fire­­, which excluded any talk of the nature of the cathedral as a Catholic Church.


“We are aching very badly because of the loss of our cathedral,” he said. “It would’ve been nice if there had been a little word of compassion for the Catholic community, because after all, it’s the Catholics who make the Cathedral of Notre Dame live: it’s not a museum. …The word ‘Catholic’ is not a swear word!”


Reflecting on the fire of Notre Dame, Marie de Roualle, MCAS ’22, who is from Paris, remarked. “It's been through so much since the 12th century and yet it's still standing. To me, the cathedral is a living testimony that no matter how much the world changes, faith is always going to be a constant in human lives.”


Featured image courtesy of Antoinnnnn via Wikimedia Commons

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