St. Augustine priest brought to tears by Notre Dame Cathedral fire

Father Tom Willis says meaning of Paris cathedral runs deep in Catholic Church

By Corley Peel - Reporter, Lori Hinnant, Samuel Petrequin and Elaine Ganley, Associated Press

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - A massive fire that engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday has hit the heart of the Catholic Church in Northeast Florida.

Father Tom Willis, of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, told News4Jax that it is heartbreaking to know the blaze damaged one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world, one of the world's most famous tourist attractions and home to incalculable works of arts.

"It truly is heart-wrenching and, you know, and that church -- that cathedral -- is iconic. It’s been around for almost 900 years. It’s the center of the city of Paris," Willis said. "My suspicion is, with the kind of importance we as a world put on a building like that, there will be rebuilding efforts if it truly is possible. We hope that it will.”

Throughout Monday afternoon, people could be seen stopping by the cathedral in St. Augustine to pray.

Willis said the meaning of the 12th-century Notre Dame Cathedral runs deep in the Catholic Church and they would be praying at Mass for those affected by the devastating fire. He said it is now important for everyone across the world to come together.

“We are certainly going to pray for them as a cathedral, as the seat of a bishop. I think every cathedral in the world is going to be uttering prayers, let alone people of every religious denomination," Willis said. "Even if you’re not a believer, this is something that brings people to realize to live in the world that we have and how fragile life is."

Though he has never seen the cathedral in person, only from an airplane, Willis said that he was brought to tears when he watched a video of the flames.

VIDEO: Jacksonville man witnesses Notre Dame Cathedral fire

Like Willis, Jenna Seaver, who has visited the cathedral in Paris, said she was heartbroken by the catastrophic fire.

"The art, the stained glass windows, the pictures -- I mean, there’s so much art that they don’t even talk about," Seaver told News4Jax. 

Steve Joyce, who has also visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, said the fire was truly a disaster.

"(It's) one of the great landmarks in Europe, never mind Paris," he said. "The style of architecture and how it was built and the stonework and the stained glass -- you couldn’t replace it if you wanted to."

Meanwhile, Joyce Kei hopes the cathedral she always wanted to visit can be saved.

"It's very upsetting," Kei told News4Jax. "It's very sad."

The blaze collapsed the cathedral's spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers, but Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church's structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to the northern belfry.

The exact cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is "potentially linked" to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris prosecutors' office ruled out arson and possible terror-related motives, and said it was treating it as an accident.

A hole left by the fallen spire was still burning and sparks rained down from the cathedral's vaulted ceilings more than five hours after the fire broke out. Gallet said fire crews would keep working overnight to cool down the structure.

As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange and flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, which is among the most visited landmarks in the world and was immortalized by Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Hundreds of people lined up on bridges around the island that houses the church, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes. Speaking alongside junior Interior minister Laurent Nunez late Monday, Gallet noted that "two-thirds of the roofing has been ravaged." He said firefighters would keep working overnight to cool down the building.

Late Monday, signs pointed to the fire nearing an end as lights could be seen through the windows moving around the front of the cathedral, apparently investigators inspecting the scene. The city's mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said the significant collection of art work and holy objects inside the church had been recovered. Remarkably, only one of the about 400 firefighters who battled the blaze was injured, officials said.

The fire came less than a week before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations. As the cathedral burned, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres across the river from Notre Dame while the flames lit the sky behind them. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers.

French President Emmanuel Macron was treating the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and straight into meetings at the Paris police headquarters nearby. He pledged to rebuild the church and said would seek international help to do so.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, its architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.

Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters were still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral. Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.

Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the "terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world."

In Washington, President Donald Trump tweeted: "So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris."

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying "to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!  God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze."

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.