Church volunteer arrested for setting fire to 15th century Gothic cathedral in France

Church volunteer arrested for setting fire to 15th century Gothic cathedral in France
The tympanum above the main entrance to the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Nantes, which was set on fire by a church volunteer earlier this month. Courtesy Flickr Commons.
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French authorities have arrested and charged a church volunteer for setting a fire that wreaked havoc on the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Nantes. The man was questioned immediately following the July 18th blaze but was released without charge the following day. Then, after lab analysis confirmed it was arson, the man was arrested on Sunday and he has reportedly confessed to the accusations.

The 39-year-old man was a volunteer at the 15th century Gothic cathedral and, according to his lawyer, Quentin Chabert, he “bitterly regrets his actions” and is “consumed with remorse.” The man had been living in France for a number of years as an asylum seeker from Rwanda. While the motives of why he set the fire at the cathedral are still unclear, Pierre Sennes, Nantes’ public prosecutor, told the Agence France-Presse that in November of last year, the man was informed he would not be granted French residency and would be required to leave the country.

The fire broke out early in the morning of July 18th but just hours after it began, firefighters were able to contain and smother it saving the overall structure of the building. An arson inquiry was launched that later confirmed that the fire has three different points of ignition. The man allegedly responsible was the volunteer who locked up the cathedral the night prior to the blaze and was trusted, according to the cathedral’s rector who said: “I trust him like I trust all the helpers.”

“He admitted during his first appearance for questioning before the investigating judge that he set three fires in the cathedral: at the main organ, the smaller organ and the electrical panel,” said Sennes after the arrest. The man has been charged with “destruction and damage by fire” and now faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of €150,000 (£136,000).

The blaze hit close to home for the French as it came just over a year after a fire devastated Paris’ Notre Dame. Although firefighters were able to contain the fire at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, aspects of the church were ruined. The church’s main organ, dating back to 1621, had survived both the French Revolution and bombing during World War II but was destroyed by the fire as were stained-glass windows that contained original 16th century glass. Among other lost items was an artwork by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, a 19th century artist and there is fire and smoke damage to the cathedral’s walls.

Construction of the church began in 1434 and lasted until the late 1800s, but in 1972, the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul suffered from a fire. After that blaze, the roof of the cathedral was reinforced with concrete. The most recent fire following the tragedy at Notre Dame, which has been attributed to ongoing conservation, has led to many to question the safety of other historic churches.

French authorities have pledged to restore the cathedral, although it will take many years and the structure will have to be secured and inspected before that process can begin.