(RNS) — A massive fire engulfed the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris Monday evening (April 15), destroying the entire wooden frame of one of Christianity's most beloved monuments.
Parisians stood in the street and watched as smoke and flames billowed from the top of the cathedral, behind its iconic towers and famous rose window. After sunset, they gathered outside to sing the Ave Maria in French.
The cause was not known, but it was thought to be linked to a $6.8 million renovation project.
Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media the entire wooden interior of the 12th-century landmark was likely destroyed: "Nothing will remain from the frame."
Earlier, the spire had also collapsed. Its landmark rectangular towers appeared to have withstood the flames, as has its priceless stained glass windows.
The medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine River may be one of the most famous churches in the world and one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It attracts more than 12 million visitors a year.
But Notre Dame was also beginning to crumble. Last year leaders issued an urgent call for funding to restore it. The statues of the 12 Apostles and four Evangelists that stood around a steeple erected in the 1840s were lifted away by cranes last week.
The cathedral was begun in 1163 and completed by 1260. It still serves as a Catholic church and is the seat of the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Christian Alain Aupetit.
"Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God," the president of U.S. Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said in a statement. "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, especially the firefighters battling the fire."
The fire alarm went off around 6:30 p.m., local time. Firefighters rushed to the scene.
The blaze came a day after Palm Sunday celebrations and less than a week before Easter. It triggered waves of emotion on social media, with people lamenting the loss of a cultural and religious jewel.
"Tonight’s burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not only the destruction of a national treasure, but reflects a devastating loss of permanence and sacred spirituality not only for Catholics, Christians of various ecumenical traditions but for people of all religions that value the relationship between God and humankind," said Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, who was in Paris on Monday and heard the bells of the Cathedral an hour before the blaze struck.
There have been a series of attacks on churches around France in recent weeks, including a fire at another Paris church, Saint Sulpice. But the blaze there was at an entrance on ground level, not on a high cathedral roof that would be difficult to reach.
Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, who was just elected head of the French bishops conference on April 3, lamented the destruction caused by the fire.
"It's a part of our own flesh that has been damaged,” said Moulins-Beaufort. “There is something terrible about seeing the work of the centuries destroyed."
Vatican officials reacted with dismay and also asked for prayer.
"The Holy See has learned with disbelief and sadness the news of the terrible fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world,” said the Vatican in a statement. “We express our closeness to French Catholics and to the Parisian population. We pray for the firefighters and for all who do their best to face this dramatic situation."
French television confirmed that the Crown of Thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis, the 13th-century French king and saint who purchased the relics of the Passion of Christ, had been saved.
French President Emmanuel Macron canceled a scheduled televised speech to the nation about much-discussed reform plans and rushed to the scene.
"We will rebuild this cathedral together," he said. "We will appeal to the greatest talents ... and we will rebuild. Because that's what the French expect, because that's what our history deserves, because it's our profound destiny."
This is not the first time the church has suffered damage. Its religious imagery was damaged during the French Revolution, and Notre Dame has undergone numerous renovations.
But Monday's blaze may be its most catastrophic.
"I don't have strong enough words to express the pain I feel seeing Notre Dame ravaged by the flames," said Paris Mayor Hidalgo in a tweet. "Tonight, all Parisians and French mourn this emblem of our common history."
(Tom Heneghan reported from Paris. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)