PARIS — A major blaze engulfed the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral April 15, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke over the center of the French capital.
The fire erupted about 6:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. St. Louis time). Authorities said the cause was not certain, but that it could be linked to renovation work that the cathedral was undergoing, the BBC reported.
Officials ordered an evacuation of the area around the 850-year-old cathedral that has withstood world wars and political turmoil throughout France’s history.
Le Monde, a Paris daily newspaper, reported that the fire erupted in the attic of the cathedral. Televised images showed the church’s iconic steeple was ablaze.
In 2018, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Paris opened an urgent fundraising appeal to save the cathedral, which was starting to crumble.
Up to 500 firefighters battled for 15 hours to save the cathedral after flames erupted in the structure's attic about 6:30 p.m. local time. The blaze quickly consumed two-thirds of the 13th-century oak roof and brought down the cathedral's 300-foot spire. Authorities said much of the cathedral's wooden interior was destroyed and its masonry was seriously scorched.
The La Croix daily newspaper reported much of the building continued to smolder April 16, as thousands of onlookers continued to pray and sing hymns in nearby streets.
Rescue teams formed a human chain to remove many of the cathedral's priceless artworks and sacred objects, including the crown of thorns relic from Jesus' crucifixion and a gold tunic of St. Louis, the report said.
The Associated Press reported that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said about an hour after the fire started that firefighters were attempting to contain a “terrible fire” at the cathedral. An AP reporter at the scene said the roof at the back behind the cathedral, behind the nave, was in flames and yellow-brown smoke and ash filled the sky.
The blaze elicited emotional responses from throughout France as Christians began the observance of Holy Week.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson issued a statement on the fire April 15. He wrote, "The Archdiocese of St. Louis joins the world community in offering prayers for the people of France. The influence of the French faithful on the St. Louis community is well known. Our own Basilica of St. Louis, King of France is representative of that historical link we have with the French community. Our hearts are with the firefighters and with the caretakers of the magnificent Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. We ask for the intercession of Mary, Mother of God and look to the promise of Easter hope and new life in the midst of this difficult loss."
The Vatican issued a statement in the evening saying that it learned “with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”
“We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the statement said.
“I had a scream of horror. I was ordained in this cathedral,” Bishop Eric Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops’ conference, said in reaction to the disaster.
“For a Parisian, our lady is a kind of obvious,” he said. “I’ve been here this afternoon. This tragedy reminds us that nothing on this earth is made to last forever. I think a lot about the Diocese of Paris. The chrism mass will not be celebrated. It is a part of our flesh that is damaged. But I hope this will create a new momentum, a universal movement.”
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “Our Lady of Paris in flames. It is emotional for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”
The magnitude of the fire resonated with Church leaders as well as those involved in preserving culturally important sites around the world.
“The horrific fire that is engulfing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” stated Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God,” the cardinal wrote in a statement April 15. “Our hearts go out to the archbishop and the people of Paris, and we pray for all the people of France, entrusting all to the prayers and intercession of the Mother of God, especially the firefighters battling the fire.
“We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians,” he added.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, wrote in a statement from the archdiocese that he immediately went to St. Patrick Cathedral next to his office in midtown Manhattan and asked through “the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!”
“God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze,” he prayed.
Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural agency, said in a tweet that her office “stood at France’s side to save and restore” the cathedral, which was added the organization’s world heritage list in 1991.
She described the cathedral as “a priceless heritage” and that the agency was monitoring the effort to fight the blaze.
In addition, the Diocese of Rome tweeted, “We are close to our brothers and sisters of the Church of #France, to the ecclesial community and to all Parisians. United, let us pray to the Virgin Mary, revered to #NotreDame, as mother of hope and all consolations.”
U.S. President Donald Trump also expressed concern for the cathedral in a tweet, writing, “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.”