Notre Dame’s reopening is ‘a tremendous sign of hope,’ cathedral’s rector says

May 14, 2024

Reconstruction work at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris entered its last phase as the world observed the fifth anniversary of the April 15, 2019, blaze that caused the spire to collapse inside the cathedral. Notre Dame is scheduled to reopen Dec. 8, to be followed by six months of celebrations, Masses, pilgrimages, prayers and exhibitions. (OSV News Photo)

PARIS (OSV News) — With the scaffolding removed from the newly installed spire of Notre Dame Cathedral and reconstruction work going full speed inside France’s most iconic church, the home of precious relics and a tourist site visited by millions of people yearly will be ready to reopen Dec. 8.

“We will be doing everything in a hurry over those last few months,” the cathedral’s rector-archpriest, Father Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, told OSV News on April 10, just ahead of the last anniversary of the April 15, 2019, fire before the reopening.

But Father Ribadeau Dumas is looking to the future with optimism. A former rector of the Lourdes sanctuary, he was appointed Notre Dame’s rector in 2022, three years after the fire. He has therefore not yet experienced the life of the cathedral in normal times.

“In April 2019, I was the spokesman for the French bishops’ conference, and I spent the whole night of the fire responding to journalists calling me from all over the world,” he told OSV News.

“Today, I am not interested in commemorating five years since the fire. What I am really looking forward to is getting everything in place that will allow us to celebrate Masses after the reopening,” he said.

“For the moment, the large scaffolding structure is still occupying the place of the ‘liturgical stage,’ on which the altar, the ‘cathedra’ — the bishop’s seat, and the ambo will be placed. And this bronze ‘furniture’ is just coming out of the foundry,” he said.

In addition, the manufacture of 1,500 new wooden chairs is progressing rapidly, and at the same time the installation of the lights also is proceeding. “Lighting is very important,” Father Ribadeau Dumas said. “It has a double dimension. We have to light the ‘liturgical stage’ according to the liturgical moments. You do not light Good Friday the same way you light Easter celebrations! And we have to harmonize this lighting with the rest of the cathedral. It is not that simple.”

What electrified France in the last weeks prior to the anniversary was the invitation to bid on the job of creating the new stained-glass windows for Paris’ cathedral. New stained-glass windows are to be installed in six of the seven chapels on the nave’s south aisle on the side of the Seine River. Candidates must be pairs of an artist designer and a glass workshop.

The commission set up by the French government followed a request from Archbishop Laurent Ulrich of Paris, for which President Emmanuel Macron gave his official approval on Dec. 8, 2023. Critics, however, noted that the new art aims to replace what is newer than the cathedral itself but still historic — the so-called “grisaille” windows installed in Notre Dame in the 19th century by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored Notre Dame at the time.

The “grisailles,” personally designed by Viollet-le-Duc, are windows in which the glass is painted only by shades of a single neutral color — and something that became a natural part of the cathedral throughout the years.

A petition signed by almost 140,000 people urging to save Viollet-le-Duc’s project said his colorful windows “were created as a coherent whole. It is a genuine creation that the architect wanted to be faithful to the cathedral’s Gothic origins.”

“Notre Dame has evolved over the centuries,” Father Ribadeau Dumas told OSV News, defending the archbishops’ idea to put contemporary artists’ projects in their place. He explained the “idea was to signify how (the cathedral) had been wounded at the beginning of the 21st century, and then resurrected.”

The archbishops’ request, the rector said “is that these stained-glass windows be figurative and evoke joy, hope and peace, to bear witness to the exceptional atmosphere that reigned during the work of restoration.”

The winners of the bid will present a prototype closer to the cathedral’s reopening. The stained-glass windows will be produced in 2025 and installed in the cathedral in 2026.
Tourists and Parisians are most excited to see the 315-foot-tall spire back, rebuilt exactly the same way as the previous one, designed by Viollet-le-Duc. With the spire’s scaffolding removed in mid-February, it is a visible sign that the end of restoration work on Notre Dame is approaching.

Since 2023, the craftsmen of the family-run company Le Bras Frères, specializing in the restoration of roofs and frameworks of historic monuments, have been working on the cathedral’s roof in their workshops in Lorraine, in eastern France. The lead ornaments had to be made to measure and match the shape of the roof timbers.

“We had built replicas of the spire’s framework in the workshop, so we could start fabricating the lead parts even before the carpenters had finished their work on the cathedral itself,” company president Julien Le Bras told OSV News. It was a “real feat,” he said.

For Le Bras, completion of the work is all the more important as his company had come close to a disaster after the fire in 2019. In 2017, Le Bras Frères was proud to win a bid to erect the scaffolding, as well as to renovate the spire’s timber frame and external roofing, in a planned conservation project. However, the 2019 fire brought the project to an abrupt halt, and the company found itself at the center of attention, suspected of being responsible for the fire.

“This tragedy has devastated everyone, especially us, who are passionate about our heritage and whose job it is to save, restore, and beautify,” Le Bras told OSV News, listing how the accusations affected not only their projects but also their employees. “Our customers became reticent, our suppliers wanted to terminate their contracts, and our insurers no longer wanted to cover our projects,” he said. “This fire has weighed heavily on us.”

Le Bras Frères was found not responsible for the fire, with reports indicating that they had scrupulously followed precautionary protocols. After the 2019 inferno, Le Bras’ workers were asked to secure the dilapidated cathedral. “We got to work straight away,” Le Bras said. “We had to secure the gables, prop up the vaults, and reinforce the buttresses. We took charge of dismantling the unstable scaffolding,” he said.

“The workers set to work bravely, and with their heads held high, even as we were dragged through the mud in the media,” Le Bras said.

In September 2022, Le Bras Frères was once again selected for the scaffolding and part of the carpentry and roofing work on the cathedral. “It was more than just a job,” said Le Bras. “It was a marathon, a presidential challenge and a mission. The craftsmen were highly motivated. They wanted to clear their honor and that of the company in the eyes of everyone, and they were proud to work for their country and for the cathedral.”

“My very deep desire is to be able to welcome visitors,” Father Ribadeau Dumas confided. “Notre Dame is a place of worship that welcomes 15 million people every year. As a priest, I seek above all to enable these people to encounter Christ. This can be done through the witness of faith that is the Masses celebrated as visitors continue their tour of the cathedral,” he told OSV News.

“It can also be through the beauty of the works of art, which say something about the presence of God,” he said. “So we prepare a lot of explaining, to help people who are unfamiliar with our faith to understand its meaning. That is what all our efforts are aimed at.”

“I would like this reopening to be the occasion of a spiritual awakening for France,” Father Ribadeau Dumas concluded.

“Today, Western society is distraught, often desperate. In this context, the restoration of Notre Dame is a tremendous sign of hope. Paris is going to get its cathedral back, and that does not just concern Catholics. The hope it represents must inspire all those who will be thrilled by the reopening.”