News

Volunteer Confesses to Starting Fire at Nantes Cathedral

PARIS — A Rwandan refugee who volunteered at the 15th-century cathedral in Nantes, France, has confessed to setting a fire that severely damaged the interior of the church this month, his lawyer said on Sunday.

The Rwandan man, who is 39 and whose name was not made public, was arrested on Sunday after the police said they had acquired unspecified new forensic evidence. He had been questioned and released earlier in the investigation.

“My client is relieved to have told the truth,” the man’s lawyer, Quentin Chabert, said during a news conference on Sunday. He added that his client “regretted his act” but did not give any motive.

The fire broke out at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in the early hours of July 18, and the French authorities quickly opened an arson investigation, saying that three starting points for the blaze had been found inside the building and that there were no signs of a break-in. The volunteer was responsible for locking up the church at night.

Pierre Sennès, the prosecutor in Nantes, said on Sunday that the volunteer had been charged with arson and that he faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros, about $175,000.

“We have determined that the man was in the area of the cathedral the morning the fire broke,” Mr. Sennès said, according to the newspaper Ouest-France. “We noticed, in two or three locations where the fire started, troubling elements that could corroborate a criminal act,” he added, noting that an “inflammable product” had been found in the building.

The fire at the Nantes cathedral came just over a year after a blaze engulfed Notre-Dame in Paris, bringing the Paris landmark to the verge of collapse and raising questions about the security risks for historic churches across the country.

Firefighters were able to bring the flames in Nantes under control within hours, but the fire destroyed a 17th-century organ. Also lost were stained-glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass, and an 1835 painting by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin depicting the first bishop of Nantes.

Image
Credit…Fanny Andre/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes was built over four centuries and completed in 1891. It was previously damaged by fire in 1972, when much of its wooden framework was destroyed. It was reinforced with concrete as the structure was rebuilt over the next 13 years.

The French government has said it will ensure the restoration of the cathedral. Experts say the work will take at least three years.