Notre Dame holds first mass since Paris fire

Priests conduct the service in a side chapel of the damaged cathedral, unaffected by fire though structure is 'fragile'.

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    Paris, France - He said he would settle for even four congregants. In the end, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit received security approval to lead a mass service with 30 participants at Notre Dame cathedral on Saturday, the first since the devastating fire that broke out two months ago.

    "It's extraordinary to be able to hold this mass," Aupetit told Al Jazeera shortly after the service. "[Notre Dame] may be damaged, but an injured person is still a person…and so is the cathedral."

    The mass, which marked the anniversary of the consecration of the 850-year-old cathedral's altar, was broadcast live by a Catholic television channel. It is normally celebrated every year on June 16.

    Wearing white hard hats, congregants stood in the Chapel of the Virgin, located on the east side of the cathedral which was undamaged by the April 15 blaze. Still, evidence of the damage could be seen during the broadcast, including close-up shots of gaping holes in the vaulted ceiling.

    The entire roof collapsed in the fire, along with the cathedral's famous spire.

    About 15 of the congregants were priests, while other selected invitees included those working on the reconstruction.

    'Very emotional'

    "[The ceremony] was very poignant," Jean-Louis Georgelin, the retired army general tasked with overseeing the cathedral's reconstruction, told Al Jazeera.

    "We could all feel the words [Monsignor Aupetit] was saying…it was very emotional."

    Aupetit assured worshippers that the Notre Dame was "still alive", adding a word of thanks "to all those who have been moved by what has happened to this cathedral".

    An astounding 850 million euros ($955m) worth of donations were pledged shortly after the fire. According to the French government, however, less than 10 percent of that money has been paid.

    The majority of donations that have been processed are small ones from around 41,000 individuals. Larger donations, such as the 200 million euros ($224m) promised by French billionaire Bernard Arnault, are being received in small amounts as the construction carries on.

    Around 150 people have been working to remove debris in order to stabilise the cathedral's structure. According to France's Culture Minister Franck Riester, the cathedral was still "in a fragile state". In an interview with a local French TV channel, Riester said that the vault could still collapse.

    Notre Dame news
    Pauline Touchon, a 35-year-old business student, visited Notre Dame on Saturday evening to catch a glimpse of the mass from afar [Rebecca Rosman/Al Jazeera]

    French President Emmanuel Macron has set a goal to complete reconstruction within the next five years. While some architects have questioned the feasibility of such a timeline, those overseeing the reconstruction say they are sticking to that target.

    "We aren't losing a single day," Jean-Louis Georgelin told Al Jazeera. "We hope that in five years the cathedral will be reconstructed, and I'm convinced that we will be able to meet this deadline without too much difficulty."

    In the interim, Aupetit has expressed plans to hold services on the esplanade just outside the cathedral, though that area is still blocked off to the public.

    The Paris diocese is waiting for approval from French authorities to reopen the space.

    French parliamentarians are working on a bill to determine how the cathedral's restoration will be carried out. In May, the French Senate adopted a text stating Notre Dame must be rebuilt to look exactly how it did before the fire. The bill will go back to the National Assembly later this summer for final approval.

    'Like a renaissance'

    Spectators lined up around the fenced area outside the cathedral on Saturday evening, with some disappointed about not being able to attend the service.

    Samar Hodroj, a teacher from Florida, was taking pictures in front of the cathedral's bell towers with her two young children on Saturday just as the mass started.

    "There's so much rich history here," Hodroj told Al Jazeera. "I think it was important to show my children Notre Dame, especially after the fire."

    Pauline Touchon, a student in Paris, came because she heard the mass would be held close to the cathedral with an opportunity for public participation.

    "I think it's always better to be able to participate hands-on as opposed to just watching it on television," Touchon told Al Jazeera. Still, she said she was happy to watch from afar, and felt positive about the reconstruction process.

    "You have to see the whole thing like a renaissance," Touchon said.

    "The cathedral is evolving, and this is just a part of the process." 

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News