A Volunteer Caretaker Has Confessed to Starting Three Devastating Fires at a 15th-Century Cathedral in France

The arsonist is facing up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $175,000.

Firefighters work at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Nantes on July 18 after a fire ravaged parts of the gothic building. Photo: Sebastien Salon-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images.

A volunteer caretaker has admitted to starting a fire that destroyed parts of a historic church in France.

A Rwandan refugee, who worked as a caretaker at the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, was arrested on Saturday night in relation to a fire on July 18 that destroyed the 15th-century church’s organ, shattered its stained glass windows, and blackened walls.

The volunteer worker has confessed to arson, though his motive is still unclear. The suspect had been notified last November that he would need to leave the country after being denied residency.

Public prosecutor Pierre Sennes told Agence France-Presse that the suspect has admitted to setting three fires at the cathedral’s main organ, its smaller organ, and its electrical panel. The 39-year-old man faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to €150,000 ($175,000).

On the night of the fire, the man had been tasked with closing up the church. He was detained and then released after questioning in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but was rearrested this weekend after officials interviewed 30 individuals and gathered forensic evidence.

“He confessed to the allegations against him which, as the prosecutor indicated, are causing destruction and damage by fire,” the suspect’s lawyer Quentin Chabert told France Info radio, according to Deutsch Welle, adding that his client is “consumed with remorse,” and “bitterly regrets” his actions.

An artwork attributed to the 19th-century artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin as well as stained glass windows that contained original 16th-century glass were also destroyed, alongside the organ that dated back to 1621 and had survived the French Revolution and World War II bombings. There was also smoke damage to the walls of the cathedral.

This is the second major fire of a church in France in just over a year. Last spring, the famous Notre Dame cathedral caught fire, leading to the destruction of its spire and much of its roof. The two fires have led to increased questions around the security at some of France’s most precious pieces of cultural heritage.


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