BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“Notre-Dame de Paris belongs to everyone on this planet.” —Michel Picaud, president of the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris
On April 15, 2019, news of the catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame de Paris stunned the world with its gruesome images. On April 12, the Alliance Française de Chicago will present Michel Picaud’s incredible stories of that night, including how the Crown of Thorns was saved and how the restoration of Notre Dame defies even French innovation. During this online presentation, he will further share the incredible news that Notre-Dame will reopen in 2024, although its full restoration could continue until the end of the decade.
Mary Ellen Connellan, Executive Director of the Alliance Française de Chicago, said, “We are delighted to welcome Michel back to update our Francophile community on the ongoing restoration efforts of Notre-Dame de Paris. Michel, a Parisian and staunch advocate in charge of the fundraising effort, shares his passionate commitment, depth of knowledge and first-hand presence on the night of the fire in a way that brings the story to life. agonizing experience of that night and its consequences. The American donors, who represent an important and crucial support for the advancement of this enterprise, are eager to hear again the latest developments from our friend. It’s a mutual love story. »
A former director of international telecommunications companies and a graduate of the Ecole polytechnique, Picaud is the volunteer president of the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, a major instrument in fundraising for the reconstruction of the cathedral.
Picaud told us during a recent visit to Chicago how he heard about the fire: “I had spent the day at Notre-Dame de Paris this Monday, April 15, 2019, at the start of Holy Week, working on our next actions to push the financing of the restoration with a team of the local television channel France 3, when I was called back by my colleague André Finot telling me that the Cathedral was on fire.
“I rushed back from my house, and I had difficulty getting to the Ile de la Cité, where I saw huge columns of fire above the building. My wife wanted to accompany me to support me in this ordeal, and we spent the night watching from the forecourt of Notre-Dame the progress of the Paris firefighters, who were struggling to put out the fire.
He says the turning point probably came around midnight when the fire was finally brought under control in the wooden steeple of the north tower. This fantastic achievement certainly saved the building from complete destruction.
Chicago architect and photographer Tom Rossiter, a strong supporter of the Friends of Notre Dame, will be in conversation with Picaud for the Alliance program. When Rossiter began an Architecture Revealed series in 2016, his love of history, architecture, and religious significance led him to choose Notre Dame for this body of work, which focuses on the most iconic buildings. most important in the world.
“I was devastated when it burned down and reached out to Michel and André Finot with an offer to do an art edition of prints to benefit the reconstruction,” he recalls. “We became good friends during a visit to Chicago where we held a joint presentation. In July 2021, Michel and André allowed me to enter the cathedral to photograph. There was a danger due to the amount of lead and visitors had to go through a complicated process that started with a locked door, then a mandatory half-hour briefing on lead precautions, and then the removal of all your clothes, which were replaced with underwear, socks, hazmat suit, wellies and helmet Everything else went in a trash bag.
At the end of the visit, Rossiter recalls having to take a shower – with special LVMH soap, no less – and deposit the hazmat gear in the aforementioned trash bag.
He says photos of the work in progress he captured illustrate the state of things at that time: “You can see the black metal of the Arrow crashing through the roof structure allowing the fire to enter in the sanctuary. You see how close the damage to the roof was to destroying the north rose window. You can also see Michel talking with one of the architects in a restored chapel to witness the finished product.
Picaud says initial efforts after the fire were aimed at safeguarding the cathedral, which was at risk of further damage. This first phase lasted until mid-2021, including major works such as the removal of the burnt scaffolding from the spire, the consolidation of the walls of the building and the 24 large flying buttresses, the first decontamination measures lead following the melting of the roof covering and the spire, the removal of the stained glass windows from the upper part of the nave and the statues at risk of falling, the test restoration of the first two chapels of the ambulatory (Saint Ferdinand) and the nave (Our Lady of Guadalupe), and the dismantling of the Grand Organ pipes.
Since then, he explains, the preparation for the actual reconstruction began with the installation of scaffolding inside the building in the choir, in the transept and in the nave, as well as the shoring of the vaults with large hangers to prepare the consolidation of the vaults and the replacement of the missing vaults – about 20% of them were destroyed. The decision was taken in mid-2020 to rebuild the well-known spire and roof as it existed before the fire and were due to the restoration of Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century.
“For the past month, a team of archaeologists has been excavating the ground at the crossroads of the transept before laying the scaffolding which will be used to rebuild the spire. They discovered remains of the rood screen or a rood screen above a rood screen, dating from the 13th century, and sarcophagi from the 14th century,” shares Picaud.
He believes this bodes well for the next stage of the restoration, which will consist of rebuilding the spire, vaults and roof of Notre-Dame de Paris for its reopening to religious services and visitors before the end. of 2024.
Originally from Paris, Picaud has always felt a connection with Notre-Dame: “Notre-Dame has always been, for me, the center of the city, both from a political and religious point of view, as well as the church. of the Archbishop of Paris. I had started two years before the fire to raise funds to finance the restoration of a building which was already in a very deplorable state. Needless to say, the disaster of April 15, 2019 was a shock, as the scale of what now needs to be done is far beyond what we needed to do at the beginning.
But it was the outpouring of support from all over the world, and in particular from the United States, that made him realize that Notre-Dame de Paris does not belong only to Parisians, to the French or to Christian believers, but to the whole world. : it is a symbol of Christianity in its true sense, which is a universal symbol that goes beyond the barriers of citizenship, race or faith.
He is especially proud to be part of the team responsible for saving Notre-Dame. “My job is to finance the restoration and to ensure in the long term that we will have the means to maintain the cathedral and to avoid any new terrible event like that of 2019”, he explains. “The monument belongs to the state. The Church of Paris will resume religious services after the reopening. My job is to contribute to the Renaissance of Notre-Dame on behalf of the tens of thousands of donors around the world, and especially on behalf of the generous American donors.
He hopes to share with their American friends his deep conviction that the restoration of Notre-Dame so beloved by all is progressing very well and would not have been possible without the support of its American donors: “We are now more than 40,000 friends of Notre-Dame – Lady of Paris. We need more of them to join us because the project will last beyond 2024. American donors are key to this project. I think Americans are realizing that they need to give this world heritage back to their children and grandchildren for centuries to come. Notre-Dame de Paris is part of the world heritage by its rich history but also by the cultural components linked to the cathedral, whether The Hunchback of Notre Dame of Victor Hugo, the films and musical comedies which are derived from it, the characters of Quasimodo or Esmeralda. And it will remain so in the future for the benefit of future generations.
“Notre Dame Paris: Fire and Restoration” will stream live online at 12:00 p.m. CDT on April 12. For more information, visit af-chicago.org.
Photos courtesy of Michel Picaud, unless otherwise stated.