After French Cathedral Was Set on Fire, Church Volunteer Admits to Arson

The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes (via Nicolas Raymond/Flickr)

On Sunday, July 26, French police arrested and charged a church volunteer who has admitted to setting a fire that severely damaged the interiors of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes.

The 39-year old man, a Rwandan asylum-seeker whose identity remains concealed, had previously been questioned and released on the suspension of setting the fire in the 15th-century cathedral. He was detained again on Saturday after new forensic evidence determined that the blaze on July 18 was likely a result of arson, according to the local prosecutor’s office.

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The blaze likely destroyed the cathedral’s 17th-century organ, shattered stained glass windows that incorporated remnants of 16th-century glass, and blackened its interiors. The fire has also consumed some of the church’s artifacts and artwork, including an 1835 painting by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin depicting the first bishop of Nantes.

“My client is cooperating,” Quentin Chabert, an attorney on behalf of the volunteer, told reporters in Nantes but provided no information on the suspect’s motives.

“Obviously it was a relief for him to show, as he would say, his repentance,” Chabert added. “As a believer, it’s important for him to show this effort.”

Nantes’s public prosecutor Pierre Sennes said on Sunday that the suspect “has not elaborated in detail on his motivations,” and that a psychiatric evaluation will be conducted.

According to Sennes, the volunteer was ordered to leave the country in November of 2019 after he was denied asylum.

Sennes told the French newspaper Presse-Océan the man admitted to setting three fires in the cathedral at the main and smaller organs, and at the electrical panel. The suspect was charged with arson and faces up to 10 years in prison and $175,000 in fines.

The cathedral’s Gothic building was previously damaged in a devastating fire in 1972, which ravaged its wooden framework. The wood was replaced with concrete, which limited the potential damage from the recent fire.

Although smaller in scope and damage, the incident in Nantes invoked scenes from the fire that consumed the spire and roof of Paris’s iconic Notre-Dame church in April of 2019.

“After Notre-Dame, the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, in the heart of Nantes, is in flames,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron lamented in a tweet on the morning of the fire. “Support for our firefighters who take all risks to save this Gothic jewel of the city.”

The French government vowed to restore the Nantes cathedral, but according to Philippe Charron, head of the regional DRAC state heritage agency, the main organ is likely unsalvageable.

“It will take several weeks to secure the site,” Charron said, “and several months of inspections that will be carried out stone by stone.” The reconstruction will take years, he added.


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