Paris, France

Worshippers in face masks filed into Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Church across from the Louvre Museum on Friday for Christmas Eve Mass, and were greeted by the rector of the closed Notre Dame Cathedral.

It was the second year that holiday service are being held under the shadow of the coronavirus.

France Paris Notre Dame

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral's rector Patrick Chauvet gestures as he speaks during an interview with The Associated-Press at Saint Germain l'Auxerrois church in Paris, on Friday, 24th December. PICTURE: AP Photo/Michel Euler.

Everyone was masked and members of the congregation sprayed people's hands with disinfectant as they entered. Children in the choir sang while masked and spaced out across the podium. They had to produce negative coronavirus tests to participate. 

“We have very strict rules in place,” said Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who is rector of Notre Dame, which has been closed since a devastating fire nearly three years ago. “The communion wafer is placed into worshipers’ hands and there is no kiss of peace. There is no contact whatsoever.”

Chauvet has been leading the congregation at Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois while the cathedral is being repaired.

In the lead-up to Christmas, France has recorded its highest-yet number of daily coronavirus infections while hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been rising. But the government has held off on imposing curfews, closures or other restrictions for the festivities. 

Maria Valdes, a dual Mexican-French citizen at Mass, said she was resigned to the restrictions of the pandemic. She has gotten used to the ever-changing rules and regulations in her private and public life. 

“As far am I’m concerned, we have to live because this is a virus that isn’t just going to go away," Valdes said. "Respect the rules, but we have to live.”

Chauvet said before celebrating the Mass that much as the fire ravaged Notre Dame, the pandemic has devastated communities, whole towns and families. The lockdowns and isolation have left people disoriented, tired and emotionally exhausted, he said. 

“I meet with people who wonder if they are going to manage to get out of this situation, people who are sometimes losing hope,” he said. 

“Christmas is hope,” Chauvet added. “We have to continue to fight, to reach the point where we can try to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

In September, the famed medieval cathedral was finally deemed stable and secure enough to start reconstruction from the blaze in April, 2019, that tore through its roof and toppled its spire. Work on the spire started a few days ago and authorities hope to have Notre Dame open to visitors and religious services in 2024, the year Paris hosts the Olympics. 

Carpenters, scaffolding experts, professional climbers, organ mechanics and others are taking part the effort, which included special temporary structures to secure the iconic towers, vaults and walls of the huge roofless structure, and a special “umbrella” to protect it from the weather. 

“It’s not simple,” Chauvet said of the work. But, he said, like people in his congregation will recover from the pandemic, the cathedral will recover its past glory.

“The spire will be the same, the roof will be the same,” he said.

- With BARBARA SURK in Nice, France.