Home / News / The Chaplain, the Cathedral Fire and the Race to Rescue Notre-Dame’s Relics

The Chaplain, the Cathedral Fire and the Race to Rescue Notre-Dame’s Relics

PARIS — By the time the Paris Fire Department’s chaplain made his way inside Notre-Dame, flames had already consumed most of the cathedral’s roof and its spire had smashed onto the nave.

But the flames had yet to reach many of the artworks, artifacts and relics, and it was the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier’s job to guide his colleagues through the many chapels and alleys of the burning cathedral and tell them which to save first.

“I had two priorities: to save the crown of thorns and a statue of Jesus,” Father Fournier said.

Days later, the chaplain does not remember the heat inside the cathedral, or the smoke.

He remembers the smells: of wood soaked by water, and of ash. He remembers the sight of water vapor rising from the hoses that firefighters had hauled inside. And he remembers the hundreds of sparkles and slivers of molten debris that gave him the impression that an orange and red rain was flooding the cavernous cathedral.

In the days since Notre-Dame was ravaged by fire, Father Fournier has emerged as a central figure of the mission to rescue endangered treasures from the blaze.

It was a task that emergency workers had prepared for. Firefighters held two training exercises at the cathedral last year that were focused on saving its treasures.

On Monday evening, when the possibility of a disaster became a terrifying reality, more than a hundred of the 500 firefighters who responded were dedicated to that mission.

Among the objects they saved were the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus, the tunic of Saint Louis and a piece of wood and a nail believed to have been part of the cross used in the crucifixion.

There were obstacles beyond the fire itself. “We needed keys and codes to save some of the world treasures, which I clearly didn’t have,” Father Fournier said in an interview on Wednesday.

The crown of thorns, for example, which the cathedral calls its “most precious and most venerated relic,” was locked in a chest.

While Father Fournier ran to look for the keys, some of his fellow firefighters opted for a more direct approach: They broke open the chest, and carried the crown to the cathedral entrance, where police officers watched over the rescued artifacts.

Then workers from the city and the church, along with emergency workers, ferried the artworks away by making what the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, called “a formidable human chain.”

Inside Notre-Dame, Father Fournier and the other firefighters worked to remove a painting depicting the Virgin and Child. He covered two of the cathedral’s models, and later helped rescue a handful of other artworks and icons.

As the chaplain began removing a statue of Jesus, he said, his colleagues were fighting the fire from the cathedral’s towers. The flames had started to threaten the wooden structure around the belfry — putting the whole cathedral at even greater risk.

With the statue in hand, Father Fournier, alone in the nave, gave a benediction to the cathedral, he said.

“I thought Jesus could help us a little bit and work, too,” he said. “I invited him to worry about his own house if he didn’t want to finish the night under a tent by the Canal Saint-Martin.”

As he talked about his experience at a fire station in the city’s Fifth Arrondissement on Wednesday, Father Fournier at times struck an almost lighthearted tone. But two days earlier, he said, much darker thoughts were going through his mind.

When he saw the flames getting closer to the cathedral’s two towers, Father Fournier’s thoughts turned to another fire chaplain: the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Father Fournier’s job has made him a witness to some of his own city’s most traumatic events in recent years.

A chaplain with the Paris Fire Brigade since 2011, Father Fournier, 53, saw the bodies of the journalists and cartoonists killed at the Charlie Hebdo newsroom in January 2015. He was also at the scene shortly after an attacker stormed a kosher supermarket two days later. And he was among the hundreds of firefighters who evacuated survivors at the Bataclan concert hall during the Paris attacks in November 2015, where 90 people died in a terrorist attack.

Father Fournier also served in the diocese of the French Armed Forces in Afghanistan in 2008, when an ambush in the Uzbin Valley left 10 soldiers dead.

From a military base in Afghanistan to a revered cathedral torn by flames, the rule, he said, is the same: “Always be on the move, or else you die.”

Inside Notre-Dame, he said, he kept the safety of his fellow firefighters foremost in his mind. “Artworks can be reproduced, while a human life can’t,” he said.

“The one who tells you that he’s not afraid in that kind of situation is either very dangerous or foolish,” the chaplain said. “Even for a firefighter, to go inside a building in flames isn’t that natural.”

French officials said that most of the artworks had been preserved despite three holes in the stone vault of the cathedral. The famed rose windows do not appear to have been damaged, though the condition of the church’s organ remained unclear on Wednesday.

In one case, serendipity offered a hand. Sixteen statues of the apostles and the New Testament evangelists escaped destruction because they were removed from Notre-Dame’s spire just days before the fire.

And the copper rooster that long stood atop the spire appeared to have survived as well, though the spire itself did not.

Most of the artworks, artifacts and relics have been moved to the Louvre museum, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on Wednesday.

As for Father Fournier, he said he hoped to hold that statue of Jesus again soon. “Preferably in a safe place,” he said. “One that has a roof.”

News credit : Nytimes