POLICE said on Monday that they suspected arson, after fire broke out on Saturday morning in Nantes Cathedral, in western France, and wrecked parts of the interior, including a 17th-century organ and 15th-century stained glass.
“No trace of a break-in has been found through the exterior accesses, and the cathedral rector has stressed that a precise inspection was done before closing the building”, the local prosecutor, Pierre Sennes, said.
“Three sources of the fire have been discovered, spaced apart by almost the entire length of the cathedral. Even then, however, we must not draw hasty conclusions.”
The official spoke as moves were made to safeguard valuable artefacts from the Gothic cathedral after the blaze on Saturday morning, which also destroyed choir stalls and a priceless 19th-century painting by Hippolyte Flandrin.
The cathedral’s administrator, Fr François Renaud, described the disaster as “a blow to the heart of the diocese”, which was preparing for the installation of a new bishop.
“It’s a shocking sight — the organ completely wrecked, the whole building still full of smoke, the artworks all soiled, and several cathedral structures weakened, including the main façade,” Fr Renaud told Le Monde on Monday.
“We’re full of sadness, especially since we can’t forget the fire which also broke out here in 1972, after which the cathedral was completely restored to an excellent, wonderful state.”
More than 100 firefighters and 45 emergency vehicles from the Loire-Atlantique region prevented the fire from destroying the cathedral’s main fabric, winning praise from French government ministers.
PAThe interior of Nantes Cathedral after the blaze
The mayor of the city, Johanna Rolland, described the 100-metre building, built between 1434 and 1891, as an “emblematic place for all the people of Nantes”, while the RC Bishops’ Conference of France appealed for prayers.
“After the fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, in April 2019 [News, 18 April 2019], and the 1972 fire at same Nantes cathedral, it isn’t just part of our religious patrimony that’s been destroyed,” a statement from the Conference said at the weekend. “It’s also a symbol of the Catholic faith which is broken, wounding the hearts of all those for whom these edifices are places of prayer, spiritual refuge, and landmarks for faith.”
The Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination, which monitors anti-Christian incidents in Europe, with backing from church leaders, described the fire as an act of “social hostility and intolerance”, and an “attack against faith”.
It also recalled that France was currently the European country worst affected by vandalism, theft, and attacks on Christian places of worship: dozens of incidents are reported nationwide each month.
Church leaders have repeatedly urged better protection for Christian sites amid complaints of growing prejudice and hostility, which are also monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is made up of 57 participating states.
Police said that they had released an unnamed cathedral volunteer, responsible for securing the building, without charge on Sunday evening. The French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, said after a visit that the state, which officially owns the cathedral, would “play a full part” in reconstructing it “as soon as possible”.
On Monday, the diocese of Nantes said that a festival of organ music would go ahead this week in the Church of Saint Clément near by.