Nearing Anniversary Of Devastating Fire, Notre Dame To Host A Good Friday Service

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 10, 2020 5:25 pm

With France, like much of the world, in lockdown because of the coronavirus, the country's Christians will not be able to gather in churches to celebrate Easter this year.

But the archbishop of Paris says he wants to send a strong signal of hope to the faithful by holding a small Good Friday ceremony amid the rubble inside Notre Dame, and beaming it out to the world.

"This message of hope is especially important in these days where we are particularly affected by the coronavirus, which is sowing anguish, death and paralysis in our country and the world," said Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, speaking at a video press conference on April 7.

April 15 will mark the first anniversary of the devastating fire that ripped through Notre Dame, destroying the Gothic cathedral's medieval roof, toppling its spire and almost bringing down the main bell towers before firefighters brought it under control.

Notre Dame is still being stabilized. Wooden beams support its flying buttresses. And a gaping hole above its nave lets in the rain and shows the open sky. But the cathedral is still standing.

Just days after the fire last year, hundreds of Parisians were able to gather and pray on Easter Sunday at nearby Saint-Eustache church. But the threat of COVID-19 has made even an Easter procession anywhere in the city impossible this year.

On the day marking the crucifixion of Christ, Aupetit says the tiny ceremony inside Notre Dame — with just seven participants — will revolve around the cathedral's most important relic, the crown of thorns said to be worn by Jesus during the crucifixion. It was brought to France in the 13th century by King Louis IX, later named a saint, returning from one of his crusades.

The crown in its ornate case survived last year's fire, though many other artifacts and artworks in the cathedral were destroyed.

The Good Friday ceremony will include two French actors, who will read texts by Mother Theresa and French poet Paul Claudel. French violinist Renaud Capuçon will perform. The service will be broadcast and streamed on KTO, a French Roman Catholic channel, and on news channel BFM TV, at 11:30 a.m. Paris time, 5:30 a.m. ET.

On Thursday, Aupetit went alone to the Sacré Coeur basilica at the top of the hill in Montmartre to bless, he said, "the city of Paris, all of France and the entire world at this time of a global pandemic."

Speaking to reporters after his visit, Aupetit said, "I asked our savior to help those who are aiding others — from health care workers to simple citizens helping their neighbors."

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To France now - that is where Notre Dame Cathedral came back to life today as a center of Easter prayer just days before the first anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed the medieval structure. The Archbishop of Paris held a small Good Friday service amid its ruins. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Violinist Renaud Capucon was one of three non-religious participants in today's service that was celebrated by just seven people but broadcast to millions. Two French actors also sang and read poems, wearing protective suits and standing far apart.


JUDITH CHEMLA: (Singing) Ave Maria.

KELLY: With Notre Dame's altar unreachable, the ceremony took place around the cathedral's greatest relic - Christ's crown of thorns brought to Notre Dame in the 13th century by King Louis IX. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit says the Crown gives humanity hope.


MICHEL AUPETIT: (Through interpreter) This crown of thorns, saved from the fire, is a magnificent sign that you are with us during our greatest suffering in this pandemic, Lord, and that we are not alone.

BEARDSLEY: The cathedral is still very fragile. A gaping hole over the nave shows the open sky, and 300 tons of charred timbers and a tangle of melted scaffolding still weighs down the vaulted rooftop. Work to bring the debris down was supposed to start last month but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus. But the archbishop was determined to hold today's service in Notre Dame.


AUPETIT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: We come together in this half-collapsed cathedral to show that life continues, said Aupetit. Outside, on the usually jammed boulevard that runs along the Seine River, the bookseller stalls are closed, and only a few cars and bicycles pass by. The new soundtrack of the city is bird calls and ambulance sirens. Seventy-year-old Hassen Benkace, who worked 30 years in a local restaurant, is standing nearby. He says he watched the cathedral burn and reads a poem he wrote about the fire from a tattered notebook.

HASSEN BENKACE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I'm no Victor Hugo, he begins, and have no easy words for this fire. Benkace says Notre Dame is a link between heaven and earth and a cathedral that is a part of all of us.

BENKACE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He thanks me for listening, saying it has lightened his burden. We have come together to rebuild Notre Dame, he says, and we will come together to defeat this virus, too. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.