A volunteer tasked with locking up one of France’s most exemplary gothic cathedrals for the night has confessed to setting three small fires throughout the interior of the 15th-century church earlier this month.
The admitted act of arson culminated in a larger but non-catastrophic blaze that put residents in the city of Nantes, in western France, on high alert. Across the country, citizens—many still rebounding from the shock and grief that sprung from a devastating April 2019 fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris—watched the events unfold in Nantes with both horror and uneasy familiarity.
There are, of course, key differences between the much larger and more damaging fire at Notre Dame and the recent fire at Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Nantes (the Nantes Cathedral). The latter fire destroyed the cathedral’s grand organ as well as some smaller organs, artwork, and stained glass windows but failed to spread to the structure’s roof which was rebuilt in concrete—a deliberate fire-proofing measure—following a larger 1972 fire that more severely damaged the late-medieval edifice. While the cause of the Notre Dame fire, although still shrouded in mystery, has been determined to be non-deliberate, investigators in Nantes were quick to conclude that the blaze at that city’s most emblematic church on July 18 was intentional. It took a team of over 100 emergency responders about three hours to extinguish the fire.
The volunteer in question, a 39-year-old Rwandan refugee who has lived in France for several years and whose name has not been made public, was initially detained and questioned by investigators after the fire and subsequently released without charges. Days later, he confessed to committing arson to his attorney and has since been charged. He faces up to ten years of jail time and a $175,000 fine as reported by the New York Times.
During a weekend news conference, the volunteer’s attorney, Quentin Chabert, told media that his client was “relieved to have told the truth” and that he “regretted his act.” However, no motive was given.
The French government has vowed to pick up the tab for restoration and repair work at Nantes Cathedral, an undertaking that, per the Times, is expected to take up to three years. This is a significantly shorter timeframe than the roof-replacing restoration that followed the 1972 fire, which took 13 years to complete.