PARIS (CNS) — Church leaders joined government officials in saying they expect that Notre Dame Cathedral’s grandeur will be restored as firefighters extinguished the last flames of a fast-moving blaze that seriously damaged much of the iconic structure.

“We are living through an extreme moment. This is Holy Week and it isn’t an accident,” Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said outside of the 850-year-old historic structure late April 15 as firefighters continued to attack the flames.

“Having marked the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are now experiencing our own passion, but we know that after it will come the resurrection. We believe in this and we will proclaim it by rebuilding this cathedral,” Archbishop Aupetit said.

The archbishop also appealed for church bells throughout Paris to be rung in a sign of prayer and solidarity.

French President Emmanuel Macron, center right, and his wife, Brigitte, walk outside Notre Dame Cathedral after it suffered heavy damage from a fire in Paris April 15, 2019. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the fire could be linked to renovation work. (Philippe Wojazer/CNS, pool via Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron praised the “extreme courage and great professionalism” of first responders who helped save the facade and towers of the Gothic landmark. He announced that a national reconstruction fund would be established.

Speaking in front of the charred cathedral late April 15, Macron said he understood the feelings of French Catholics in face of the disaster and pledged the whole population would “stand with them” in restoring it.

“Notre Dame de Paris is our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we have experienced our great moments, the epicenter of our life,” said Macron, who was accompanied by the archbishop, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Flames and smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out in Paris April 15. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the fire could be linked to renovation work. (Charles Platiau/CNS, via Reuters)

“We built this cathedral over centuries, raising it up and improving it, and I now state solemnly that we will, all of us together, reconstruct it. This is undoubtedly part of the French destiny,” Macron said.

Earlier, Macron Macron tweeted, “Our Lady of Paris in flames. It is emotional for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”

Up to 500 firefighters battled for 15 hours to save the cathedral after flames erupted in the structure’s attic about 6:30 p.m. local time. The blaze quickly consumed two-thirds of the 13th-century oak roof and brought down the cathedral’s 300-foot spire. Authorities said much of the cathedral’s wooden interior was destroyed and its masonry was seriously scorched.

The La Croix daily newspaper reported much of the building continued to smolder April 16, as thousands of onlookers continued to pray and sing hymns in nearby streets.

Rescue teams formed a human chain to remove many of the cathedral’s priceless artworks and sacred objects, including the crown of thorns relic from Jesus’ crucifixion and a gold tunic of St. Louis, the report said.

A reliquary containing what tradition holds is Jesus’ crown of thorns is displayed during a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris March 21, 2014. A major blaze engulfed the iconic cathedral April 15, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke over the center of the French capital. (Philippe Wojazer/CNS, via Reuters)

Noted art historian Jean-Michel Leniaud told the newspaper April 16 it was too soon to assess the extent of the fire damage but said it would certainly represent “a major blow and terrifying mutilation of the country’s history.”

The cathedral symbolized “relations between religion and political power,” he said, adding that he believed the French state should “take charge of its reconstruction.”

Meanwhile, offers of support in rebuilding the cathedral came from Church leaders and governments around the world, including Donald Tusk, European Council president, who said April 16 that he hoped the European Union’s 28 member-states would all help share the costs.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural agency, said in an April 15 tweet that her office “stood at France’s side to save and restore” the cathedral, which was added the organization’s world heritage list in 1991.

She described the cathedral as “a priceless heritage” and that the agency was monitoring the effort to fight the blaze.

French newspapers said the Pinault family, whose consortium owns the Gucci and Saint-Laurent fashion brands, had pledged 100 million euros (US $113 million) overnight, while the LVMH group, which includes Moet Hennessy-Louis Vitton, had promised 200 million euros (US $226 million).

In a television interview in the wee hours of April 16, Archbishop Aupetit said the cathedral symbolized “the soul and history of France,” as “a site traversing the centuries which was always a place of faith.”

Flames and smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out in Paris April 15, 2019. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the fire could be linked to renovation work. (Benoit Tessier/CNS, via Reuters)

He explained how the disaster had stirred “deep emotions” throughout France, adding that he had received messages of sympathy from faith leaders worldwide, including many Muslims.

The newly elected president of the French bishops’ conference, Bishop Eric Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, told the Famille Chretienne weekly April 16 the cathedral also represented “national unity during all tests,” and would be “an immense loss” to the whole world.

“Something from the best of humanity went up in flames yesterday evening, and I sense a large part of humanity is in communion with our grief,” Bishop Moulin-Beaufort said.

“But cathedral edifices have been burned before and every time they’ve been rebuilt even more beautifully. So, I see in this tragedy the occasion for a national restart and a sign of resurrection for the whole nation,” he said.

Bishop Moulin-Beaufort, who was ordained in the cathedral, said earlier that he had a “scream of horror.”

“For a Parisian, Our Lady is a kind of obvious,” he said. “I’ve been here this afternoon. This tragedy reminds us that nothing on this earth is made to last forever. I think a lot about the Diocese of Paris. The Chrism Mass will not be celebrated. It is a part of our flesh that is damaged. But I hope this will create a new momentum, a universal movement.”

Paris prosecutors said they had opened investigations into the cause of massive fire and were questioning workers carrying out an eight-year restoration project, launched in January.

A young man holding a rosary prays in front of Notre Dame Cathedral April 16, after a fire broke out in Paris. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the April 15 blaze could be linked to renovation work. (Paul Haring/CNS)

Notre Dame’s chief organist told the BBC the fire had been reported shortly after an April 15 early evening Mass. He said he and other members of the cathedral staff were “devastated.”

He added that there was no news as yet about the state of the cathedral’s historic 8,000-pipe 18th-century organ, but said he still hoped it could be preserved after lengthy repairs.

The Vatican issued a statement in the evening of April 15 saying that it learned “with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”

“We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the statement said.

In addition, the Diocese of Rome tweeted, “We are close to our brothers and sisters of the Church of #France, to the ecclesial community and to all Parisians. United, let us pray to the Virgin Mary, revered to #NotreDame, as mother of hope and all consolations.”

“The horrific fire that [engulfed] the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God,” he said in a statement April 15. “Our hearts go out to the archbishop and the people of Paris, and we pray for all the people of France, entrusting all to the prayers and intercession of the Mother of God.

“We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire [was], I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians,” he added.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, said in a statement from the archdiocese that he immediately went to St. Patrick Cathedral next to his office in midtown Manhattan and asked through “the intercession of Notre Dame, Our Lady, for the cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!”