As people across France struggled with the pain of the devastation to Notre-Dame cathedral, more than $1-billion in donations has poured in from around the world to help rebuild the cultural landmark.
French President Emmanuel Macron promised to restore the fire-damaged cathedral to its glory within five years, vowing in a televised address on Wednesday that it would be even more beautiful. “It is up to us to change this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project,” he said.
The fire has touched a nerve in France and deeply affected the country, which has a long Roman Catholic tradition, if not always in practice. For many people in France, Notre-Dame is a symbol of their faith, their country and 850 years of French history. The destruction of the cathedral’s towering spire, its ancient wooden roof and the statues of St. Denis and St. Genevieve are a monumental loss for France, which takes pride in its history. While many priceless artifacts were saved, including the Crown of Thorns, much of the building has been badly damaged by fire, smoke and water.
Even as Mr. Macron spoke on Tuesday, throngs of people lined the banks of the Seine River across from the cathedral, which is still cordoned off by police. Many came to sing, pray or just contemplate the hulking stone towers and blackened interior. All campaigning in France for the European Parliamentary elections next month has been suspended, and Mr. Macron has put off a speech about the yellow-vest protests.
“I didn’t think it would be so heart-wrenching to come here,” said Alexia Falcon, who saw the burned out structure for the first time on Tuesday night. “It’s unbelievable.” Standing next to her, Marie Hélène Dubreu said she lives just a few blocks from the cathedral, but was too distraught on Monday to come and see the fire. “My heart ached,” she said on Tuesday as she looked at the remains for the first time. “It’s devastating. This is our soul.” A few feet away, two dozen university students knelt on the cobblestone pavement and softly sang Ave Maria. Then they said a prayer for the church and the country.
Investigators still don’t know how the fire started, and on Tuesday, a handful of firefighters could be seen walking through the building, inspecting the walls and surfaces carefully with flashlights. Prosecutors have opened a preliminary criminal probe, but so far everything points to an accidental cause.
The restoration will be complicated and costly. Few believe Mr. Macron’s prediction it can be done in five years, and most experts say it will likely take twice as long. Bureaucratic tie-ups and clashes with church officials are also expected. The government has owned the building since 1905, but culture ministry officials have battled with church leaders over who should pay for the soaring cost of maintenance. So much so that a few years ago, the Archbishop of Paris and the Diocese of Paris created a charity called Friends of Notre-Dame to raise money for upkeep. The charity aimed to raise US$180-million for a 10-year renovation program, and two years ago, made a direct pitch to U.S. donors. That raised about US$10-million that went toward the roof repairs that were under way at the time of Monday’s fire.
While the flames ravaged much of the building, firefighters said the overall damage was not nearly as bad as they feared. The structure is generally secure, they said, and many of the most cherished objects were saved including the Crown of Thorns, which is believed to have been put on the head of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion; the great organ; and the tunic of St. Louis, a garment believed to have been worn by King Louis IX. The cathedral’s altar, stained glass windows and golden cross also remain largely intact as well as many of the pews and statues. The 16 statues on the steeple, which burned and collapsed in the fire, had already been removed as part of the renovations, and firefighters rescued many of the giant paintings, and they were taken to the Louvre on Tuesday. "All the 18th-century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine,” the cathedral’s heritage director, Laurent Prades, told reporters.
Whatever restoration work is needed, money has been pouring in to help finance it. By Tuesday evening, more than $1-billion had been donated, and that is expected to go much higher. Most of the money has come from French billionaires and corporations, including the owners of LVMH luxury goods, L’Oreal cosmetics, and energy giant Total SA. But several wealthy Americans have contributed as well, including Apple boss Tim Cook, and several online fundraising campaigns have been started. There is concern that competing interests could complicate the restoration, and that the funds won’t find their way to the proper uses.
The fire has also prompted a global outpouring of grief and pledges of support from world leaders. The United Nations promised whatever help was necessary to restore the cathedral, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Pope offered his solidarity to the French people in a phone call with Mr. Macron. British Prime Minister Theresa May said churches across England would ring their bells on Thursday in support of Notre-Dame, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s spokeswoman said the cathedral’s bells “will sound again.”