‘It will be breathtaking,’ Notre Dame’s chief architect says; iconic cathedral reopens Dec. 8

The spire of Notre Dame Cathedral, pictured April 10, 2024, is now back atop the iconic structure. Reconstruction work at the cathedral entered its last phase as the world prepared to observe 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/Charlene Yves)

By Caroline de Sury

PARIS (OSV News) — Philippe Villeneuve, Notre Dame Cathedral’s chief architect, learned about the 2019 fire 300 miles from Paris and rushed to the capital to help firefighters save the iconic monument.

For France’s top architect of historical sites, the evening of April 15, 2019, was especially dark as Notre Dame Cathedral was already his passion when he was a little boy. Since the inferno, he has worked tirelessly to finalize major parts of renovations by Dec. 8 when the cathedral is reopened.

In fact, it was a fascination with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the French architect who restored the cathedral in the 19th century, that inspired Villeneuve to become an architect of historic monuments. A graduate of École Nationale Supérieure D’architecture de Paris Val-de-Seine, Paris’ architecture university, he has been entrusted with the renovation of many iconic monuments, including one of the most well-known castles in the Loire Valley — Chambord.

In 2013, he was asked to renovate part of Notre Dame in Paris — including repairing the stonework of the flying buttresses and the fissures in Viollet-le-Duc’s spire. When the fire broke out, he was working on the spire.

The fire of 2019, the cause of which remains unknown, struck Villeneuve as a personal tragedy.

“Everyone was scared, and it went on for hours, getting worse by the hour,” he told OSV News. He was immediately asked to secure the site, and the Ministry of Culture confirmed him in his mission to repair the damaged cathedral. Since then, he has devoted all his time and passion to the challenge.

Today, the chief architect is confident of meeting the deadlines imposed on him. “Yes, the cathedral will be ready for its official reopening on December 8, 2024. The framework is finished. The roofers are still working,” he told OSV News. “There was a lot of wind at Easter, so we were a little behind schedule. But we will make it up. We have to hurry, but everything will be fine.”

The site of the Notre Dame reconstruction is still sealed off, with tourists patiently watching the front towers of the cathedral from the wooden steps installed in front of it. The steps are placed not far from the place where Villeneuve found the copper rooster perched at the spire’s top that was feared lost on April 15. However, on April 16 at dawn, Villeneuve found the battered rooster lying in the gutter of Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame, a street right next to the cathedral square. The relics of Paris’ patron, St. Genevieve, were found intact inside.

After five years of intense work and installation of a new rooster — one he designed himself — on top of the new spire, Villeneuve told OSV News they are now “preparing the most decisive phase of the project.”

“This involves dismantling the large scaffolding at the transept crossing. Removing it will enable us to rebuild the cross vault, replace the paving and install the altar. We are going to erect a new scaffolding, but this time detached from what is below, to put the finishing touches to the work on the spire’s roof at this point,” he explained.

“This work, above the transept crossing vault,” he said, “is the most delicate part of the project. But everything is going well.”

Villeneuve emphasized that this magnificent project was made possible by the international outpouring of generosity and donations that followed the fire. “I would never have imagined that Notre Dame could have aroused such emotion throughout the world, during and after the fire,” he told OSV News. “It was astonishing.” Those involved in the reconstruction emphasize that many American donors generously supported rebuilding of the icon of Paris and icon of the Catholic Church.

“Notre Dame shows France’s influence in the world, and its extraordinary heritage. But the fire was not just a national issue. Notre Dame is also a (UNESCO) World Heritage site, and during the fire, we really felt that it was humanity that was seeing its heritage disappear.”

Villeneuve added that “the flames and the fall of the spire sent shockwaves around the world” but “fortunately, the firemen did an extraordinary job, and in the end we lost a frame, a roof, a spire, a few pieces of vaulting, but no more. And thanks to all that, in the end, we will have an even more beautiful cathedral than before the fire. This is very stimulating.”

Since the rebuilding work began, all those involved on site have testified to the exceptional quality of the skills and spirit of Notre Dame’s craftsmen. “It is true that there is an extraordinary atmosphere,” Villeneuve confirmed. “If so far we were able to meet the deadlines, it is because the contractors and craftsmen trusted me. And I trusted them. The complicity and commitment were total, for the good of the cathedral, and also for the pleasure and pride of working on this extraordinary monument”.

He said he also has “deep respect and affection for the totally anonymous people on the site, such as those who take care of the daily clean-up,” Villeneuve told OSV News. “It is thanks to them too that this project is progressing so well. I greet everyone in the same warm way.”

Eight months into the reopening, various teams are working on the process of equipping the cathedral with electricity, IT, heating, lighting, among other systems.

Vileneuve said every person working in the reconstruction has a symbolic task of passing on their knowledge and work for future generations. They “will spread out everywhere after the site is finished,” Villeneuve said, “Those who will have benefited from this project to perfect their craft, will pass on all this as (craftsmen did) in the Middle Ages. They will pass on all this know-how.” Villeneuve added, “Life is about transmission. … We are passersby.”

Villeneuve doesn’t treat the cathedral’s reconstruction merely as a work project. In a conversation with OSV News, he described the cathedral as if it were a human being. “We are giving the cathedral all the elements that will bring it to life,” he said. “I would like to give people something that will touch them. I would like to help Notre Dame Cathedral speak to people, as best as it can.”

He said, “Notre Dame speaks to me. … Notre-Dame means a lot to me,” adding that this cathedral “is no ordinary monument. Everything we do has a strong mystical and religious significance. We cannot forget that. There is a mystical and religious dimension in our work.”

Villeneuve also confessed that he is already dreaming of seeing people’s amazement when they enter the cathedral. “It will be breathtaking,” he said. “On the outside, it is now exactly as we knew it. But on the inside, it is more beautiful than we have ever seen it.

“Even us. Even I, who knew it by heart, am amazed to finally see what this cathedral was really like inside (in the further past), in terms of architecture, light, care and quality. It is extraordinary. You will not recognize it.”

For Notre Dame’s chief architect, this “project of a lifetime” will not end at the end of the year. “There will still be the restoration of the chevet,” or apse, he said. “And we are going to use the rest of the donations to restore the sacristy, the presbytery, maybe even the transepts. We will not stop work after December 8. I will be here on a daily basis until 2028.”

He said for him the most important thing in life “is doing useful things for others,” Villeneuve added. “I am happy to be able to contribute something to the world.”

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One reply on “‘It will be breathtaking,’ Notre Dame’s chief architect says; iconic cathedral reopens Dec. 8”
  1. says: James W Ballinger Sr

    I was able to visit the Cathedral in years 1964 & 1965 (while I was in theArmy) and took many pictures, both inside and outside the site. It was a beautiful experience, one I will never forget. It was shocking to see it burning in 2019 and it saddened me to think it would not ever be restored, but thanks to the generosity of patrons around the world it will be completely restored. It is one icon immediately recognized by all peoples. Much thanks to all those who contributed.

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