Notre Dame Is 'Not Out of Danger' as French Catholics Mourn First Christmas Without Mass at the Cathedral in 216 Years

The steeple and spire of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/Getty

Parisians and Catholics worldwide mourned the absence of Christmas mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019—a first since the French Revolution. The loss was especially painful in the wake of news from the church's rector, who said there's a "50 percent chance" the landmark may not be able to be saved.

Monsignor Patrick Chauvet told The Associated Press that scaffolding installed before the April fire—which melted, fused and is now perched ominously above the building—is at risk of collapsing onto the three vaults.

"We need to remove completely the scaffolding in order to make the building safe, so in 2021 we will probably start the restoration of the cathedral," he said. "Once the scaffolding is removed we need to assess the state of the cathedral, the quantity of stones to be removed and replaced."

According to French newspaper Le Monde, the cathedral had housed Christmas services annually since 1803, following the end of the French Revolution. This year, services were moved to the Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois Church, which is near the Louvre museum. Chauvet shared his "heartache" at celebrating Christmas elsewhere with The Associated Press.

French lawmakers passed a restoration plan in July to facilitate the reconstruction of the damaged roof and immolated spire. The bill allocated around $1 billion dollars—provided by a coalition including individual and private donors—to the project, which French President Emmanuel Macron says should be finished in five years.

That timeline has generated skepticism towards its feasibility and somewhat arbitrary end date ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and prosecutors have said that it could have been the result of a discarded cigarette or electrical problem.

"Today, it is not out of danger," Chauvet emphasized to The Associated Press.

A dispute over how to restore Notre Dame has emerged among the project's leadership. Philippe Villeneuve, who has served as the building's architect since 2013, was told by an army general overseeing reconstruction to "shut his mouth" after speaking out about a desire for historically faithful restorations.

French lawmakers have already mandated that reconstruction efforts "preserve the historic, artistic and architectural interest of the monument."

The Paris tourism office has ranked Notre Dame as the city's most-visited cultural monument. In 2017, it outranked both the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in terms of total visitors. Approximately 12 million people trek to the site annually.

Tourists won't be able to re-enter the building for around another three years. Upon removal of the scaffolding, architects have to first ensure that Notre-Dame is structurally sound.

After the spire caught fire in April, 460 tons of lead were surrounded by flames, which spewed toxic dust into the atmosphere. The reconstruction will require planners to address a host of architectural, environmental, health-related and political challenges.