Notre-Dame fire: Parisians mourn and pray as priest saves relics

Church hymns sung as Parisians watched on in disbelief

TOPSHOT - People hug while looking at Notre-Dame-de-Paris on April 16, 2019 in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral.
 Paris was struck in its very heart as flames devoured the roof of Notre-Dame, the medieval cathedral made famous by Victor Hugo, its two massive towers flanked with gargoyles instantly recognisable even by people who have never visited the city. / AFP / Bertrand GUAY

The sun shone brightly as tourists made their way through a spring evening on the banks of the river Seine, jostling with the locals leaving of offices and workspaces. Yet by nightfall on Monday, Parisians and visitors were still on the streets, many standing in an eerie silence, looking at the flames engulfing Notre-Dame cathedral.

Concern turned to tears, and then singing. Parisians, on the banks of the river Siene, sang the famous Ava Maria (hail Mary) hymn to eulogise the loss of a most famous landmark as 400 firefighters battled to stop the inferno.

While some sang, one man who is usually at the forefront of prayer services did the unthinkable.

Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, ran into the burning cathedral and saved relics said to have touched Jesus.

Etienne Loraillere, an editor for France’s KTO Catholic television network, said Fournier “went with the firefighters into Notre Dame Cathedral to save the Crown of Thorns and the Blessed Sacrament”.

It was only in 2015 that the priest went out onto the streets to comfort bereaved relatives after the Bataclan terrorist attack.

The Crown of Thorns is purported to be a relic of the wreath of thorns placed on the head of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. It was brought to Paris in 1238 by French monarch Louis IX.

American tourist Emily Macintosh, visiting Paris with her husband, said the unfolding events took her back to similar national tragedies.

“Watching the spire fall reminded me, in a small way, of seeing the towers collapse on 9/11. I prayed that no one would be hurt (and haven’t heard that anyone was) and yet tears welled in my eyes and my heart sank as I watched the flames engulf the building.”

“I’m honestly not sure how to process these feelings,” she said.

One eye witness said she was moved to tears.

“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol -- every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” said Anne Marie.

“Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”

Lech Kurek, a 38-year-old visiting with his wife from Poland, said they had been left shell-shocked ahead of the Easter break.

“I am praying and my wife is singing,” he said. “It is just crazy and surreal... For Christians, it is terrible ahead of Easter.”

In video footage aired to the world’s media, Parisians can also be heard murmuring, urging: “Not Notre Dame. Not Notre Dame”

Just an hour before the fire started, Brooke Windsor took a photo of father and daughter playing in the sun just outside the cathedral.

“I almost went up to the dad and asked if he wanted it. Now I wish I had.”

Her tweet has since gone viral, as she searches for the father and daughter.

While the photo can be returned and even passed on, the bulk of Notre-Dame will remain gone for now.