Meet the Man Who Is Rallying American Patrons to Save Notre Dame Cathedral

Michel Picaud, president of Friends of Notre Dame de Paris, discusses his mission to help finance restoration of the beloved Paris church.

Michel Picaud, president of Friends of Notre Dame de Paris
Michel Picaud, president of Friends of Notre Dame de Paris (photo: Yannick Boschat)

The surge of generosity following the April 15 fire at Notre Dame de Paris aroused the indignation of some political representatives who considered that these funds would have been better spent on helping the poor. In the same way, some commentators feared that the cathedral had received more money than necessary for the restoration.

Such allegations were promptly dismissed by Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, who noted on several occasions that it remains impossible to know exactly how much the restoration will cost and that most of the donations pledged in the aftermath of the fire haven’t materialized yet.

Furthermore, the ways to financially ensure the maintenance of the cathedral after the restoration work remain uncertain. Yet this question is crucial for Notre Dame’s longevity and shouldn’t be underestimated, as Michel Picaud, president of Friends of Notre Dame de Paris, points out.

Created in 2016, this American law foundation was originally meant to bridge the insufficient funds allocated by the French government — which owns the cathedral — for the restoration of several areas of the monument already seriously damaged before the blaze by the typical wear and tear of time, climate and weather.

Picaud, a former director of international companies, became its volunteer president and brought his expertise to mobilize U.S. funding for the beloved French cathedral. And, after the fire, the foundation has become a major instrument in fundraising for the cathedral’s reconstruction.

In this interview with the Register, Picaud discusses his three-year experience with American philanthropists and the reasons why these Americans have a special interest in Notre Dame de Paris.


How did the foundation Friends of Notre Dame de Paris come about, and how did you become its president?

Three years ago, in 2016, following a proposal by art historian Andrew Tallon, the then-archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, told his team at the diocese that it could be a good idea to gather private funds in order to accelerate the restoration process for the cathedral, considering its very bad shape at that time. They got in touch with me and proposed that I participate in this fundraising project for the cathedral, in spring 2016.

I went to the U.S. in autumn 2016 to meet with experts in the field of fundraising for monuments, and this is how Friends of Notre Dame de Paris was born. We made a request, after having created the foundation, to become a 501(c)(3) organization, that is a nonprofit organization exempt from federal income tax. It allows donors to partly deduct their donation from their income tax.

Then I was appointed president, and we created a board. We got the official recognition in May 2017. In a parallel effort, we thought it was important to collect funds in France, too. This is why we created “Fund Notre Dame de Paris” in one of the foundations hosted by Fondation Notre-Dame: Fondation Avenir du Patrimoine à Paris. Before taking on the cathedral project, this foundation used to collect funds for parish churches in Paris.

At this time, we also made an agreement with the French government so that it could contribute to the collected private funds with matching public funds. It allowed to noticeably increase our budget for the restoration work.
We started our fundraising in autumn 2017, and at the same time we launched the restoration efforts for the most damaged part of the cathedral, that is the spire, which was already very damaged even prior to the fire. And when the fire occurred, we were about to start the restoration work of one of the flying buttresses in the choir — which was also very damaged prior to the fire — as well as work on the sacristy.

On April 19, we had collected about 3.6 million euros, half in the U.S. via Friends of Notre Dame de Paris and the other half in France.


How do you explain the American interest toward Notre Dame?

American people are definitely very attached to Notre Dame, for cultural reasons first, as they usually consider it the most important monument of Europe. Because it dates back to the Middle Ages, to the 12th century more precisely, it is a gem of Gothic art and worldwide culture. Then many Americans have also read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, so it is part of their intellectual and cultural background.

In addition to this, there have been a number of movies and musicals on the theme of Notre Dame. It is really part of Americans’ cultural universe. It is a very strong image; and when they go to Europe, most of the time their first destination is Paris and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

They are particularly sensitive to this, and it helped us a lot in our search for funds for the restoration. But no one in France or in the U.S. had any idea how bad the situation was before the fire. To give you an insight into the situation, the big flying buttresses of the cathedral were already very damaged far before the fire, and there were already chunks of stone regularly falling off the cathedral. … Over the past few decades, bad weather and Parisian pollution already weakened the whole structure. We are currently talking a lot about the lead cover that melted during the fire, but again, this cover was already extremely damaged. The spire’s lead cover was disjointed in some places; as a result, prior to the fire, rainwater was starting to leak through the spire to the cathedral’s roof. This is why we started the restoration work with the spire.


What has been the impact of the April 15 fire on your donors? 

Clearly, we took a big step backward regarding the cathedral’s general condition, as we lost the roof, the spire, part of the vault … then the walls were abundantly watered by the firefighters, which further weakened them. But the positive side of all this is that it aroused a momentum of solidarity, in France, but also in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Just to give you an idea, we had about 800 American donors at Friends of Notre Dame on the morning of April 15. A week after the blaze, they were 10,000.

But I would say that everything we did during the two years preceding the fire was very helpful. The fact that we already started this fundraising project made it far easier to collect funds online after the blaze. Our foundations provided a solid infrastructure.


Are your donors mainly Catholics?

Not all of them are Catholics. There is indeed a big “battalion” of Catholic donors who refer to Our Lady, to the Virgin Mary. We are strongly supported by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Archdiocese of New York — which is one of our best supporters. We also received significant donations from St. James Cathedral of Seattle and its diocese. A lot of American parishes raise funds and send us money. But beside this hard core of Christian donors, there are also a lot of donors from other confessions that give money for the monument itself and what it represents on a cultural level.

What struck me the most is that they came from everywhere and from all of the American states, from East to West Coast. And it is so moving to see the enthusiasm, the sympathy that American people have for this restoration project. It is very encouraging.


Who is your greatest donor in the U.S.?

One of our greatest donors is Walt Disney Corp. They made a very important donation for Notre Dame. Indeed, they know it particularly well, as they often used the image of the cathedral for their cartoons or movies. And Victor Hugo’s book inspired them, as well.


How much have you collected since the April 15 fire?

At the end of June, we had collected $8 million in the U.S. But we continue our fundraisings. We have permanent actions and events in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago. … We also organized a concert in San Francisco and in New Orleans this summer. We have been present almost everywhere, often at the initiative of cities and dioceses and with the support of the French Embassy in the U.S.; that helps us a lot. But we also raise funds through our newsletter that we regularly send to our contacts or through campaigns of calls for funds in certain periods of the year. There is a continuity in our actions throughout the year.


In an interview a few weeks after the fire, you said that “Americans understand perhaps better than the French that it will be necessary to continue to give beyond this surge of emotion.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

First of all, American people have a tradition of philanthropy that is deeper and more rooted than ours — even if there also was a strong wave of solidarity in France after the blaze. Americans are used to financing elements of their heritage through philanthropy. There is one thing in the private financing of a cultural heritage that must be taken into account, beside the restoration: the maintenance over time. What is very important is that, beyond the huge effort that must be done to rebuild the cathedral — which could last five years or more — it will be necessary to maintain the cathedral afterward. Our mistake until now has been that the budget the French state dedicated to the maintenance of the cathedral has been totally insufficient. So the cathedral deteriorated over time. We must establish a maintenance budget after the restoration work, which will ensure its longevity.

In this sense, the Americans have a process which is called endowment. It is a fund in which the donors capitalize, and from the gathered capital, the annual financial products of the capital go to the maintenance of the restored monuments. It is precisely the type of mechanism that we will be gradually implementing here for Notre Dame. Thus, when the reconstruction will be completed, we will be able to establish a maintenance budget thanks to this capital received from the donors.


You’ve just mentioned the five-year deadline of the restoration project, which is still a controversial topic in France and beyond. Do you think it is doable, or is it at least a sensible ambition?

I think that it is a good thing to establish a deadline for the rebuilding, as it will enable those involved to maximize all of their energies in order to rebuild the cathedral and reopen it for Catholic Masses and visitors as soon as possible.

Secondly, the restoration program that we set up before the fire spanned a period of 10 years. So I am sure that, after the five-year deadline, there will be other elements left for restoration.


A lot of Americans are joining the new association Restaurons Notre-Dame, which supports, as far as possible, the restoration of the frame and spire to their previous condition. Is this desire to restore Notre Dame to its original condition a concern that you’ve been witnessing among your U.S. donors?

Absolutely. I receive plenty of testimonies from American donors that wish that the cathedral will be rebuilt as it was, at least for its external appearance. I have no doubt that the architects will be familiar with modern materials that can be used to make it similar to its last known visual state. But I definitely receive a lot of messages from American donors that clearly support an identical restoration.

The current project for Notre Dame includes not only the cathedral, but also its surroundings, and for instance a significant part of Ile de la Cité. It can be a way to combine a faithful reconstruction for the cathedral and some artistic expressions that can be a little bit different in its surroundings. It is only a personal reflection, but I think that we could imagine very interesting things for the whole program.


Is there a message that you wish to convey to U.S. citizens today?

First of all, I would like to sincerely thank them! I thank the numerous donors in the U.S., in France and in the whole world. And I ask them to continue to support us, as there is a long way to go before the restoration work is totally completed.

Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.