Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

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Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. FOUAD MAGHRANE/AFP/Getty Images

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Notre Dame: An unrepeatable treasure of faith and culture lost to the flames

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent
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TOPSHOT-FRANCE-FIRE-NOTRE-DAME TOPSHOT - Smokes ascends as flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019 afternoon, potentially involving renovation works being carried out at the site, the fire service FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

April 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Paris is in shock. As I start to write, the cathedral of Notre Dame is in flames, and has been burning for two and a half hours. It is the heart and soul of Catholic France, a shrine of incredible beauty built 850 years ago for the glory of God. Whatever the cause of the fire – and an investigation has already been launched – the French are devastated.

Those who believe are praying, and considering the terrifying symbol of the destruction of one of the most important places of worship of the “Oldest daughter of the Church,” at the beginning of Holy Week.

Notre Dame is not the geographical center of France, but it is from here that all distances are calculated on the road network. It is here that the precious Relics of the Passion brought to France by Louis the IXth have been kept since 1806. It was the cathedral of the kings of France when they still had their main residence in the medieval palace of the Louvre. It is… it was a living symbol of French history that is so intertwined with the history of Salvation: here, throughout the centuries, the Sacrifice of the Mass was offered, and the Blessed Sacrament kept. When the fire broke out, Mass was being said at the main altar.

Even those who do not believe are deeply touched and saddened. Not even the French Revolution was able to destroy Notre Dame de Paris – although the sanguinary Robespierre would have liked to pull it down. Later, it would survive the Second World War, when Paris was preserved from the bombings that obliterated so many towns and historic buildings in Europe.

The bishop of Paris, Mgr Michel Aupetit, tweeted two hours after the start of the fire: “Firefighters are still battling to save the two towers of Notre-Dame de Paris. The frame, the roof and the spire have burnt down. If you wish, you can ring the bells of your churches to call to prayer.”

Several hours later, at 11 pm French time, official statements from the Interior ministry and the firefighters of Paris – truly an élite corps – said the structure of the cathedral “is safe and has been preserved in its totality.” Mgr Aupetit said the courage of the firefighters, who risked their lives throughout the operations, the two towers and the façade were saved. But the 700 year-old wooden frame that supported the roof has been destroyed.

My daughter was a direct witness to the beginning of the fire, happening to be across the Seine on the Left Bank when the first flames showed at the base of the XIXth century spire built to replace the original medieval spire that was brought down during the Revolution. The base of the spire was surrounded by scaffolding; first reports say the fire was probably set off accidentally during renovation works.

She described to me the shock of the onlookers, many of whom were crying or looking on in dismay. As the fire slowly spread to the whole of the roof, thousands of Parisians and tourists converged to the banks of the Seine to witness the disaster. Groups formed and started singing canticles or praying the rosary. They are still there as I write. Every church in Paris opened this night for prayers.

One horrified message followed the other on my cell phone. “Smoke and flames coming from the spire.” “It’s burning all over now.” “Everywhere.” “You can see right into the choir now,” wrote my daughter.

She said the moment the spire fell over was almost too much to bear and even frightening.

A daily mass takes place on weekdays at 6:15 pm at the main altar, the new altar facing the faithful from the middle of the transept, directly under the spire where the fire broke out. The cathedral was evacuated at first when a fire alarm went off, after which the public returned, thinking it was a false alert, my daughter told me, having spoken to a person who assisted at that mass. Then the reality of the alert became apparent and all were again requested to leave the building.

It was on this very altar that Dominique Venner, a pagan “new right” historian committed suicide six years ago, allegedly to call attention to the destruction of Western civilization. It was a sacrilege as Notre Dame has known during its long history, when it was turned into a Temple of Reason in 1793…

But mainly, Notre Dame is known for the role it played in France’s Catholic history, with its Te Deums, its glorious Masses, the coronations of several French kings but also of Napoleon.

The sight of the magnificent building convinced a French traditional artist and sculptor brought up in secularism, Henri Charlier, then an atheist, that the Middle Ages were not Dark Ages, but a time of great beauty and civilization. This set him on his road to conversion.

A century later, no one would nowadays dare question the sheer artistic value of the medieval cathedral. It was always a sign of the importance of God, pointing to heaven and reminding passers-by that there is a reality beyond that which can be seen. Saint Louis, king of France, Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas and so many others knew the building as it stands now, lovingly built by masters of the building arts.

Were the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Crown of Thorns and the many treasures kept there saved? Reports say they are “safe.” But it was only a few hours after the start of the fire that my daughter heard that the Treasure of the Cathedral was being evacuated. Now night has fallen witnesses say that they can see lights from the inside of the building, which seems to indicate that firefighters are within the building. Pictures were taken of the salvage.

French president Emmanuel Macron was to have given a national speech on television following the yellow vest crisis. He decided to postpone his speech and a form of miracle occurred when he spoke of the sadness of Catholics “at the beginning of this Holy Week,” adding that the rebuilding of Notre Dame is a duty born of France’s “profound destiny.”

Since the separation of Church and State in 1905, church buildings in France belong to the State and are conceded to the Catholic Church to be “used for religious purposes.” It can only be hoped that the medieval splendor of Notre Dame will not be spoiled by modernist reconstruction projects.

The renovation project is thought to be responsible for the fire of Notre Dame – which bears similarities with those of the cathedral and Saint-Donatien church in Nantes in 1972 and 2015, both linked to renovation works, as well as that of the historic Parliament of Brittany in 1994. In all these cases, a fire was accidentally set off and then smoldered unnoticed before breaking out with such force that it was too late to quench it.

Many French church buildings are in a sorry state of repair as cultural budgets are used for contemporary art projects.

The cathedral of Paris badly needed renovation but the budget set aside for it was hopelessly inadequate. Several dozen million euros would have been necessary; current works were being done for 2.5 million euros.

A wave of desecrations and attacks against Catholic churches and buildings over the last 18 months, including the desecration of the basilica of Saint Denis which was the necropolis of French royalty and arson at Saint-Sulpice in Paris a month ago have lead to speculation that the fire at Notre Dame was criminal and perhaps even terrorist in nature. The supposed starting point of the fire, in the roof space under the “forest” of the roof frame at the base of the spire, has not been open to the public for many years. An accidental origin appears to be more probable at this point.

Perhaps the flames of Notre Dame will rekindle the faith of the French people, who have felt in their very flesh what it means to lose the treasure of Christianity!

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