As cross and tower bells return to Notre Dame, firefighters' chaplain recalls battle to save icon

PARIS (OSV News) -- The cross over Notre Dame's choir and the eight bronze bells in the north tower can now be reinstalled in their rightful place in the iconic Paris cathedral.

The public institution Rebâtir Notre Dame de Paris, responsible for the cathedral's resurrection, announced that their cleaning and restoration had been completed.

The choir over which the cross will be again installed is an area designed to accommodate the liturgical singers, located in the chancel, between the nave and the altar.

The 40-foot metal cross, designed in the 19th century by the architect who was restoring Notre Dame at the time, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, is the only element of the choir roof to have survived the fire of April 15, 2019. It had fallen to the ground when the roof frame collapsed, but was not too badly damaged.

The bells had been taken down from the cathedral in July 2023 to be cleaned, but above all to enable restoration of the wooden structure supporting them, in the north tower, one of the two square towers on the facade of Notre Dame, where the fire had spread before being quenched.

Father Jean-Marc Fournier was a close witness to this moment when the north tower began to be attacked by fire. As chaplain to the Paris fire department, he was on the scene, wearing his firefighting uniform and taking part in the massive operation with 600 firefighters mobilized.

With the help of a team of colleagues, he had taken Jesus' crown of thorns to safety -- a relic particularly dear to his heart. As a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, he felt an urgency to ensure its protection.

"After the crown of thorns, I helped save a number of works of art, paintings … and altar furnishings, and then I became concerned with the Blessed Sacrament," Father Fournier told OSV News.

"There was the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle of the high altar, but it was absolutely impossible to reach it! There were blazing infernos on the floor in front, with tangles of beams burning, showers of flames and molten lead falling from the roof. It was a furnace," he said.

"Surprisingly, the statue of the Virgin Mary at the pillar was immaculate, unharmed in this glowing atmosphere," Father Fournier pointed out.

There was a second reserve of consecrated hosts at the altar of St. George, one of the chapels around the choir, Father Fournier recalled. "There, on the contrary, there was a great silence, a great tranquility and an astonishing freshness. We found the keys, and I retrieved the Blessed Sacrament.""I then thought of blessing the cathedral with the Eucharist," Father Fournier recounted. "I felt that, for everyone, this fire was unlike any other, and ciborium in hand, I blessed the cathedral," he said. A ciborium is a receptacle designed to hold the consecrated Eucharistic bread.

"It was an act of faith. I asked Jesus, whom I believe to be truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, to fight the flames and preserve this building, which is like a jewel box dedicated to his mother," Father Fournier said."After this benediction, I left the cathedral," Father Fournier continued. By that time, the fire had started in the north tower.

"General (Jean-Claude) Gallet, who was in charge of the Paris fire department, had given the order to concentrate the men's efforts on this point, in an attempt to prevent the flames from reaching the beams of its framework, which carried the bells," Father Fournier said of the attempts to save the tower to which the bells are now returning to the cathedral."Surprisingly, the firefighters brought the situation under control at this point in a matter of minutes, precisely at the moment when I was blessing the cathedral with the Blessed Sacrament," Father Fournier said.

"You can read events any way you like. I want to see that Jesus wanted to intervene. Beyond the general's excellent maneuvering, for me there is no doubt that it was also this prayer to Jesus, at this precise moment, that enabled victory at a crucial moment in the battle. The north tower was saved, and both towers were preserved. Those minutes were decisive in saving Notre Dame," Father Fournier told OSV News.

"The cathedral was damaged, but it suffered relatively little damage in the end," Father Fournier commented.

The Notre Dame fire is not the first time Father Fournier has been through tragedy. A military chaplain known for his bravery, Father Fournier ministered to French soldiers in Afghanistan, burying 10 of his comrades killed on Aug. 18, 2008, in a Taliban ambush. He also consoled victims of Paris terror attacks in 2015, at Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters and the Hyper Cacher kosher market that happened just two days apart in January that year, followed by the November massacre at the Bataclan concert hall, leaving 130 people dead and over 400 wounded.

"The history of buildings is like that of human beings," Father Fournier concluded. "Fires and destruction are part of their lives, as are the happy moments and trials of life. There are hard times, and times when we rebuild. The important thing is to live each day, and each minute, as a true Christian, whatever the times we go through," he said.

- - - Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.