Jean-Louis Georgelin, Who Was in Charge of Rebuilding Notre-Dame, Dies

by Pelican Press
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A French general who was placed in charge of rebuilding Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris after a devastating fire in 2019 has died, according to the French authorities. He was 74.

Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, a former army chief of staff whom President Emmanuel Macron had chosen to lead the restoration project, was hiking in the Pyrénées in southwestern France on Friday when an accident most likely occurred, according to French news reports.

The prosecutor’s office told the French news media that the police had found a body and formally identified it as the general’s, but the exact circumstances were not immediately clear.

“The nation has lost one of its greatest soldiers,” Mr. Macron said in a statement on Saturday. “France, one of its great servants. And Notre-Dame, the architect of its rebirth.”

Mr. Macron had chosen General Georgelin to lead the complex reconstruction project just months after a blaze tore through the cathedral in April 2019. The fire destroyed the latticework of ancient timbers that made up Notre-Dame’s attic, melted the roof’s lead sheath and endangered the stability of the iconic stone structure, which has stood in the heart of Paris for eight centuries.

The flames also sent molten metal, charred beams and the cathedral’s spire crashing into the interior.

Mr. Macron vowed in the immediate aftermath of the fire that the cathedral would be rebuilt within five years — an ambitious timeline that General Georgelin was tasked with enforcing after being appointed president of the public establishment in charge of the project in late 2019.

General Georgelin quickly became the face of the cathedral’s reconstruction, a jovial but no-nonsense military man who prided himself on keeping the project on track.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, called his death “a great loss.”

“He was a man of authority, highly respected,” she said in a statement. “He knew how to create the human and organizational conditions needed to successfully rebuild Notre-Dame.”

Laurent Ulrich, the archbishop of Paris, said in a statement that France and the Roman Catholic Church had lost “one of their most devoted servants.” He said that a Mass for General Georgelin, a practicing Catholic, would be held on Sunday at the Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris.

The authorities plan to reopen the cathedral for religious services in December 2024, when the bulk of the internal reconstruction is scheduled to be complete. The rebuilding has proceeded despite worries over lead contamination at the site and delays caused by coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

An investigation into the fire is still continuing, but a definitive cause may never be determined. The leading theories among investigators are an electrical short-circuit or a discarded cigarette.

Most recently, workers started erecting scaffolding to rebuild the spire’s wooden framework, which is due to be completed by the end of this year. Stained-glass windows and organ parts have started returning to the site after being cleaned of lead dust.

“We are continuing our march, uninterrupted, toward the reopening of the cathedral,” General Georgelin said under a blazing sun last month on the banks of the Seine River as gigantic solid-oak trusses were delivered by barge and then lifted by crane onto the cathedral.

At the time, the general welcomed the prospect of Notre-Dame’s world famous “silhouette” rising once again in the Parisian sky. “We’re moving forward step by step,” he added, “without fretting, as if the matter were in the bag.”

Jean-Louis Georgelin was born in southwestern France in 1948 and graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1969.

He started his military career in the French infantry and rose through the ranks, serving as President Jacques Chirac’s personal military adviser beginning in 2002. As the chief of staff for France’s armed forces from 2006 to 2010, he oversaw French military operations in Lebanon, the Ivory Coast, Afghanistan and the Balkans. He was also grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, from 2010 to 2016.

Although Mr. Macron briefly floated the idea of rebuilding Notre-Dame’s 300-foot spire with a “contemporary architectural gesture,” the idea was quickly dropped, and for the most part the cathedral is being rebuilt as it was, including with lead roofing.

But in an interview with Le Monde newspaper in April, General Georgelin insisted that “everything is being rethought” with innovations, including “cutting-edge” fire prevention technology like misting systems, thermal cameras and fire-resistant doors, as well as a recovery system to treat rainwater running off the lead roof before it goes into the French capital’s sewers.

“We are rebuilding Notre-Dame identically,” he had said. “But we are building a 21st-century cathedral.”

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