No Christmas mass at Notre Dame for first time in more than 200 years

PARIS, France -- Notre Dame Cathedral won't be celebrating Christmas this year, for the first time since the French Revolution more than two centuries ago.

The Paris landmark kept going during two world wars, but it took a fire in peacetime - in April this year - to close it down.

As the lights stay dim in the once-invincible 855-year-old Paris landmark, officials are trying hard to focus on the immediate task of keeping Notre Dame alive in exile through service, song and prayer.

It has decamped its rector, famed statue, liturgy and Christmas celebrations to a new temporary home just under a mile away, at another Gothic church in Paris called Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois.

And there it will remain, as works slowly progress to consolidate and rebuild the cathedral after the fire destroyed its lead roof and spire and was moments away from engulfing its two stone towers.

"She's an old lady... This is the first time since the French Revolution that there will be no midnight Mass (at Notre Dame)," said the cathedral's rector Patrick Chauvet.

During the Revolution, anti-Catholic French activists turned the cathedral into a "temple of reason".

Christmas in exile at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois this year will be a history-making moment.

There will be a wooden liturgical platform that has been constructed in the Saint-Germain church to resemble Notre Dame's own. A service will be led at midnight on Dec. 24 by Chauvet to a crowd of faithful, including many who would normally worship in the cathedral, accompanied by song from some of Notre Dame's now-itinerant choir.

The cathedral's iconic Gothic sculpture "The Virgin of Paris," from which some say Notre Dame owes its name, is also on display in the new annexe.

The 14th-century masterpiece, which measures around two meters (six feet) and depicts Mary and baby Jesus, has come to embody a message of hope following the fire, after it was spared from destruction by a "miracle."

"It's a miraculous virgin," declared Chauvet. "The vault of the cathedral completely crashed. There were stones everywhere, but she was spared. She could have naturally received the vault on her head and have been completely crushed," he said.

He recalled the moment on the night of the fire when he discovered this, as he was holding hands with French President Emmanuel Macron on the cathedral's forecourt. Around midnight as the flames subsided, they were finally let inside to look, as Chauvet pointed and exclaimed to Macron: "Look at the Virgin, she is there!"



Chauvet said having the statue nearby at Christmas would be comforting.

"She lived very much in Notre Dame. She watched the pilgrims, all the 35,000 visitors a day ... It keeps us going," Chauvet said.

Another reason for hope: since November, after months in the dark, the facade of the cathedral is being lit up after dusk for the first time since the fire.

Tourists over the festive period can now see the famed gargoyles and stone statues at night in their full illuminated splendor from the adjacent bridges, although the forecourt is still closed.

Cathedral officials chose Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois as the new temporary home because of its proximity to Notre Dame, just next to the Louvre, allowing ease of movement for clerics who lived near the cathedral. Also, because of its prestigious history.

It was once a royal church that boasted among its faithful the French king, in the days when he still had his head and lived in the nearby Louvre Palace. The king, Chauvet explained, would simply cross the esplanade to come and attend Mass.

Since September, the church has been welcoming the cathedral's flock each Sunday.

Though Notre Dame has moved liturgically to a new home, Notre Dame will always remain Paris' cathedral so long as the bishop's physical chair, or "cathedra" doesn't move.

Derived from the Greek word for "seat," and giving the building its very name, a cathedral's entire identity technically boils down to the presence of a chair.

"The cathedra is at the cathedral and so it remains Notre Dame Cathedral, which is the cathedral in the heart of Paris," Chauvet said

It is not only the faithful who have been displaced since April's devastating blaze.

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Notre Dame was home to a vibrant 160-strong choir school, which provided singers for each and every one of the cathedral's some 1,000 annual services.

Midnight Mass at Christmas was always a special event in the year, one of the rare times the entire choir sung together and used the cathedral's famed acoustics to their fullest.

Instead of disbanding, this now-homeless chorus of singers, ranging in age from 6 to 30, has continued to operate.

Different sections of the choir put on concerts in churches, such as Saint Eustache and Saint Sulpice, in Paris and beyond. On Christmas Eve, its members will sing at various yuletide events, including at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, as well as, bizarrely, at the Russian Circus.

VIDEO: Somber crowd sings 'Ave Maria' amid Notre Dame fire

Henri Chalet, a choir director, sees reasons to be optimistic.

In the grand scheme of things, five or six years of restoration for an 855-year-old cathedral "is nothing at all," he reasoned.

Notre Dame choir singer Mathilde Ortscheidt, 29, left a little more space for melancholy as she regretted her absence at last year's Midnight Mass.

"To think that I was ill last Christmas, thinking that I would go again this year with no problem!" she said.
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