Arsonist Confesses to Starting Nantes Cathedral Fire

The July 18 blaze, which inflicted less damage than the devastating April 2019 inferno at Notre-Dame, destroyed the French church’s organ, stained glass

Cathedral in Nantes with black smoke, a firefighter's truck in the foreground
A fire at Nantes Cathedral destroyed stained-glass windows and a 17th-century organ. Photo by Sebastian Salom-Gomis / AFP via Getty Images

Editor's Note, July 28, 2020: A volunteer caretaker has confessed to starting a July 18 fire at Nantes Cathedral, reports Agence France-Presse. Authorities had previously questioned and released the 39-year-old Rwandan refugee, who was tasked with locking up the historic church on the day before the blaze. The arsonist's motive is still unclear. He now faces up to ten years in jail and a fine of $175,000.

“He bitterly regrets his actions,” the man's lawyer tells broadcast network France Info. “My client is consumed with remorse.”

Read more about the July 18 fire below.

On Saturday morning, the residents of Nantes, France, awoke to a huge fire at the town’s 15th-century Gothic cathedral. The blaze, which enveloped the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul’s front window in a haze of thick black smoke, destroyed stained glass panels and a 17th-century grand organ, reports French broadcasting channel LCI.

The 100 or so firefighters called to the scene extinguished the flames within hours of responding to an 8 a.m. alert, according to the New York Times’ Elian Peltier. Locals and tourists alike watched from afar as the cathedral burned.

Authorities suspect that the blaze may have been started deliberately, and an arson investigation is ongoing. City prosecutor Pierre Sennès, as quoted by Kim Willsher of the Guardian, told reporters that the fire appears to have started in three separate places: near the grand organ and in two spots on either side of the altar. Investigators found no evidence of a break-in, per Reuters.

The day after the fire, a 39-year-old man was cleared of all suspicion after undergoing questioning. Though police have not yet identified him by name, BBC News reports that he is a Rwandan refugee who was tasked with locking up the building the day before the fire.

“He is not implicated,” Sennès tells Reuters. “The inconsistencies that came up have been clarified.”

Around 100 firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze on Saturday morning. Photo by Sebastian Salom-Gomis / AFP via Getty Images
A view of Nantes Cathedral' interior following Saturday's fire. Charred debris covers the floor, and scorch marks appear on the walls. Photo by Fanny Andre / AFP via Getty Images

According to the French Ministry of Culture, the church—located in the heart of Nantes—has been listed as a national heritage site since 1862. Construction began in the 15th century and continued until 1891.

The inferno broke out just over a year after a devastating fire at Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral destroyed its iconic spire and much of its wooden roof.

But officials were quick to point out that the Nantes fire inflicted far less damage than the Notre-Dame blaze.

“I would like to emphasize that we are not in a scenario like that of the Notre-Dame in Paris or the fire at the cathedral that took place in 1972,” Laurent Ferlay, head of the firefighters in the Loire-Atlantique area, told BBC News on Saturday.

The 1972 fire referenced by Ferlay destroyed the majority of Nantes Cathedral’s wooden framework. This structure was subsequently replaced with concrete, the Times reports. Prior to the 1972 blaze, the church withstood Allied bombing during World War II.

Per the Guardian, this week’s fire shattered many of the cathedral’s 16th century-stained glass windows; destroyed the grand organ; and burned at least one painting, Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s Saint-Clair Curing the Blind (1837).

First built 401 years ago, the organ had previously survived the French Revolution, World War II and the 1972 blaze. Speaking with Marie-Estelle Pech of Le Figaro, Joseph Beuchet, a 90-year-0ld former organ manufacturer who helped protect the instrument during the previous fire, recalled, “We had avoided the worst. Even if it still had to be repaired.”

Beuchet, whose family had helped repair and tune the organ for generations, described the loss as a “nightmare.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France acknowledged the blaze on Twitter, writing, “After Notre-Dame, the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, in the heart of Nantes, is in flames. Support for our firefighters who take all the risks to save this Gothic gem in the city of the Dukes.” (During the medieval period, Nantes was home to the Dukes of Brittany—a fact that earned it the nickname la Cité des Ducs, or the “City of the Dukes.”)

As with the ongoing restoration of Notre-Dame, the French government owns Nantes Cathedral and will foot the bill for its restoration with the help of donations, reports Camille Mordelet for French newspaper Ouest-France.

“It is a part of our history, a part of our heritage” Nantes mayor Johanna Rolland told reporters Saturday, as quoted by Laetitia Notarianni and Thomas Adamson of the Associated Press. “We all have these images in mind, this story in our hearts, but at this stage the situation does not seem to be comparable to that of 1972.”

Martin Morillon, president of the Nantes Cathedral Association tells LCI that the loss of the organ is a “tragedy,” according to a translation by the Guardian.

He adds, “Disbelief is the predominant feeling today because it is our heritage that has disappeared, that has gone up in smoke.”

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