Notre-Dame's great bell to toll once again on anniversary of fire

PARIS (Reuters) – A year on from the inferno that gutted Notre-Dame de Paris and stunned the world, the cathedral’s great bell will ring out on Wednesday evening, as a mark of the building’s resilience and that of the medics battling France’s coronavirus epidemic.

The bourdon bell has sounded just once since April 15, 2019, when the blaze broke out that consumed the spire and the roof and, officials say, came within half an hour of burning the 850-year-old cathedral to the ground.

It will toll at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), coinciding with the hour when Parisians applaud from their windows and balconies in tribute to the frontline staff risking their lives to treat COVID-19 patients.

The outbreak has killed close to 16,000 in France.

“The restoration of Notre-Dame … is a symbol of the resilience of our people, of their capacity to overcome hardships, and to recover,” said President Emmanuel Macron.

Twelve months ago, Parisians lined the banks of the Seine river, some holding hands, others singing hymns and lighting candles, as the fire ravaged a centuries-old symbol of French identity.

Pope Francis at the time spoke of the sadness he felt for the French people mourning the devastation of Notre-Dame. One such person was local artist Frederique Galey-Jacob who on Wednesday returned to the cathedral to sketch the scene.

“It allowed me to express my feelings, to fight against the feeling of powerlessness that we felt as it burned,” Galey-Jacob said. “It’s a need, I don’t know how to explain it.”

Macron reiterated a promise to rebuild Notre-Dame within five years, though the works to ensure the cathedral is structurally sound are running months behind schedule, delayed first by winter storms and now by the pandemic.

“Our objective is to prepare the cathedral for mass on April 16, 2024,” Jean-Louis Georgelin, the retired army general leading the restoration project, told Reuters.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean everything will be finished.”

But the cathedral’s southern belfry where the 13-tonne bell – cast in 1681 and the second biggest in France – is housed, is structurally undamaged.

It is traditionally rung for major religious celebrations, papal visits and presidential funerals, and has sounded once since the fire, in September, in tribute to former president Jacques Chirac who died that month.

On Wednesday evening, two bellringers will set it in motion again. “We will ring the bourdon,” Georgelin said.

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