General Jean-Louis Georgelin: "The Notre-Dame site is the honor of France"

General Jean-Louis Georgelin: “The Notre-Dame site is the honor of France”

In the spring of 2022, General Georgelin agreed to preface our special issue “At the heart of an exceptional site” and shared with our readers his passion for the monument and his Christian hope. Our weekly pays tribute to him by republishing this text.

“In a life, there are hours that we do not forget. Three years after the tragedy, I keep on my phone the text messages exchanged with General Gallet, then commander of the Paris fire brigade. The evening of April 15, 2019 at 8:04 p.m., I wrote to him: “General, save Notre-Dame!” His response rocketed: “It’s the next thirty minutes that will be crucial.” Everything was said. Then the arrow went off. ablaze and collapsed. At 10:25 p.m., finally, his message of deliverance fell: “The north belfry is saved”. The next day, I was summoned to the Elysee. The President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, had been hired the day before to restore the cathedral in five years. He was looking for a Catholic to lead the project, who had held high positions within the State and had a reputation for authority. He asked me to to be that man. I answered in the affirmative without hesitation, rushing without really knowing where I was going. My pride in being chosen was real.

From the outset I ruled out failure; the chief of staff of the armies that I stayed leaves to win. Beyond my person, it is the honor of France that the president has committed: we have no right to failure. The site is progressing at a good pace and the securing and consolidation work ended, as planned, last summer. There have been trials, such as the management of lead pollution, the health crisis, the fight against egos. Critics too. Some accused me of wanting to make the cathedral a museum: enough to hurt the believer that I am. And then great moments of happiness, like during the last European Heritage Days. The trades village that we had organized for the occasion on the cathedral forecourt brought together 20,000 people in two days and will, I hope, have made it possible to encourage as many vocations among the youngest.

From the outset I ruled out failure. The chief of staff of the armies that I stayed leaves to win.

General Jean-Louis Georgelin

Today, when I walk through this cathedral of stone and iron (1), when I cast my gaze on its consolidated vaults, its walls which regain their whiteness, I say to myself: “That’s it! Notre-Dame is coming back to life!” My love for the monument has not changed: I still see the cathedral through the eyes of the parishioner who went there for mass. I just have, in addition, the happiness of being able to admire from the top of the scaffolding, the western rose window, which depicts the fight of vices and virtues, to slip into the narrow gallery of kings. Brief joys because I don’t allow myself time for poetry. We have to respect the deadline set by the President; I have to plan the work with rigor, bring everyone on site together every day, never give up. “Where there is a will, there is a way”, says the proverb. With Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect of Notre-Dame, I am responsible for the restoration of a major symbol of our country, witness to the great hours of our history. Notre-Dame de Paris is the French Westminster. The monument obliges us.

Rebuilding identically does not exclude the use of new technologies: the computer modeling of hangers has allowed us to take giant steps. And for scientists, this project is a unique opportunity to participate in the resurrection of a Gothic gem. Inside too we are moving forward. The National Commission for Heritage and Architecture has given the green light to the liturgical development project carried out by the diocese of Paris. There have been debates but respecting heritage does not mean being fixed: replacing a chair with a bench is not a crime! You have to know how to keep reason and refocus on the essentials.

With 844 million euros in donations and 340,000 donors, this project is generating an unprecedented outpouring of generosity. I can’t help but be moved by the gestures of anonymous people: the collection of ten euros made by a little boy on his birthday, the check for 20,000 euros sent by the resident of an nursing home, that of 40 euros signed by a Fulani man, or even the daily collection of a Roman beggar from the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français. Alongside the site’s major patrons, whose support is decisive, these testimonials encourage us. The believer that I am is touched by every gesture of solidarity. Christians constantly think of the great reopening mass, the return of music from the great organ, the bells that will ring that day, the prayer of gratitude that will rise in the nave illuminated by the restored stained glass windows. And for all those who love Notre-Dame, I dream of seeing its spire taking shape again in the sky of Paris. Then, with the architects and all the actors of the construction site, we will be able to say with one voice: “Mission accomplished!”

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