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General who headed Notre Dame Cathedral rebuilding dies at 74 while hiking in mountains

French Army Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, in charge of the Notre Dame Cathedral reconstruction, speaks to the media April 15, 2020. Georgelin, who was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the reconstruction of the cathedral, died while hiking in the Pyrénées mountains Aug. 18, 2023. He is believed to have fallen on Mount Valier in southwest France and his body was recovered after he failed to appear at a checkpoint, The Guardian reported. He was 74. (OSV News photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)

PARIS (OSV News) — The French army general appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral will not see the reopening of the pearl of France Dec. 8, 2024. Army Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin died Aug. 18 while hiking in the Pyrénées mountains.

He is believed to have fallen on Mount Valier in southwest France at an altitude of 8,694 feet, according to The Guardian, which reported “mountain gendarmes” discovered the general’s body after he did not report to a mountain checkpoint. He was 74.

Macron tweeted Aug. 19: “With the death of General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the nation has lost one of its great soldiers, France one of its great servants and Notre-Dame the master manager of its renaissance.”

Philippe Jost, chief operating officer of the Rebâtir Notre-Dame de Paris (Rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral), said in an Aug. 19 statement that “It is with infinite sadness that we have learned of the accidental death of Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin.”

“The entire staff … is deeply saddened by his death, and joins in the grief of his family and loved ones. The General combined an unconditional love of France, exceptional personal ethics and incomparable energy with an attention to people that won him the affection of everyone at the establishment,” he said.

Georgelin was an accomplished military officer, serving in Algeria, Lebanon and Bosnia and overseeing French military operations in Ivory Coast and Afghanistan. He also trained at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, according to The Guardian.

A practicing Catholic, he was asked by Macron to lead the efforts to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral in what is seen as a record speed of five years after the April 2019 fire.

“The determined pursuit of the cathedral’s restoration, to ensure its reopening to worship and visitors in 2024, so dear to the general’s heart, is the best tribute that all of us, with all our partners, architects, craftsmen and artisans, can pay to his memory. In our grief, we are working towards this goal with a determination stronger than ever,” Jost wrote.

Georgelin was known for his kindness and sense of humor.

Four years after a devastating fire, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is to reopen Dec. 8, 2024, according to an announcement made March 16 by Philippe Villeneuve, the architect leading the reconstruction, during a trip to Val de Briey in eastern France.

Making the announcement with Villeneuve was Georgelin, who joked about the timing of the opening. “Let’s say 11.30 a.m. We may be slightly late,” the general joked in front of journalists.

It was there that the base of the famous Notre Dame spire was being assembled before its installation on the four pillars at the crossing of the cathedral’s transept, at a height of nearly 100 feet. The spire was destroyed when a fire ravaged the cathedral April 15, 2019.

The general’s death has come when visible progress is being made on the reconstruction.

On July 11, the oak trusses for the new roof made their way to Île de la Cité, the famous Paris island in the Seine River where Notre Dame Cathedral is located.

Throughout July and August, workers have been fitting the pieces together in what looks like a giant construction site in the French capital’s city center to make one of Paris’ emblematic landmarks accessible for faithful and tourists again.

The fire, which started on a spring afternoon, quickly spread to the roof of the cathedral. The original 13th-century oak beams burned down. While firemen protected the stained-glass windows and the famous twin towers from catching fire, crowds gathered in shock around the cathedral and witnessed the collapse of the spire. Groups of the faithful were praying along the streets of Paris that their beloved cathedral would be saved.

Many treasures were, in fact, saved from the inside of Notre Dame, including the Crown of Thorns that is believed to be worn by Jesus during his passion. The crown temporarily is on display at the Louvre Museum.

The rector-archpriest of Notre Dame Cathedral, Father Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, commented Aug. 19 on X that Georgelin “as the head of the public establishment (for rebuilding Notre Dame), with tenacity, conviction, love for the cathedral and the Church, he has led his teams so that Notre-Dame opens at the end of 2024.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that the general “liked to say that he was nothing without the talent of all the women and all the men mobilized in this unique project, the work of a lifetime,” she wrote on X Aug. 19.

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