In a society divided over fundamental issues, marriage and the end of life, with fewer people practicing a Christian, let alone a Catholic faith, the most famous cathedral in the world is giving itself a big present — nine new bells, to celebrate its 850th birthday.

Notre Dame, the beautiful cathedral on the island in the heart of Paris, had its first stone laid in 1163. This week its new bells are being installed and will ring out for the first time on Saturday 23 March at 5 pm, on the eve of Palm Sunday.

“The project to restore the bells is the one of the most important parts of this celebration,” says the Rector of the cathedral, Monsignor Patrick Jacquin. “We will be able to hear the bells as they have not been heard since the end of the 18th century, before the French Revolution.”

Throughout history the bells of Notre Dame have rung for significant moments like the Liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944 with the arrival of General de Gaulle, the crowning of Napoleon in presence of the Pope in 1804, the opening of the trial for the rehabilitation of Joan of Arc on 7 November 1455, or the 12 August 1239 when Saint Louis, King of France, entered the cathedral barefoot carrying a relic of Christ’s crown of thorns.

But during the French Revolution the bells were thrown to the ground and melted. Only the great tenor bell was spared.

Then in 1831 Victor Hugo published his landmark novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The popularity of this story inspired the city of Paris to repair the cathedral which was in a sad condition, with water pouring in through holes in the roof. Twenty years of work was carried out, from 1845 to 1865, directed by Viollet le Duc.

In 1856 four bells were installed in the cathedral to replace those destroyed during the Revolution, but the metal was of poor quality and the bells were not tuned correctly to create a harmony with the great tenor bell. These bells, in a worn condition, were taken down on 20 February 2012.

Today, Notre Dame Cathedral is visited by 20 million tourists each year — more than the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and even the Great Wall of China.

“The great doors of Notre Dame are open to everyone, from every race and nation,” says Monseigneur Jacquin. “People come here seeking hope and a meaning in their life — ‘How did these stones remain standing through so many centuries? And why am I here now, at this moment in my life, what joys and sufferings do I bring with me to this holy place?’ This is the vocation of Notre Dame cathedral, to welcome each person as unique, to help them on their path towards God.”

More than a year of fine-tuned work has been necessary to make the new bells. Eight tons of bronze were melted to a heat of 1,100 degrees in the Royal Foundry of Holland to make the great tenor bell, named “Marie”. The eight other bells were made in the foundry of Villedieu les Poêles in Normandy where bells have been made since 1865.

“Over the past fifteen years the Catholic Church in France has been actively restoring its heritage buildings, and we have more and more orders for new bells from villages all over France,” says Paul Bergamo, who followed in his father’s footsteps at the head of this foundry.

On 31st January the new bells were escorted into Paris and down the Champs Elysees in a cavalcade. Since that day more than a million people have come to visit the bells before they are hoisted up into the south and north towers of the cathedral.

The wooden belfries have been strengthened, using centuries-old techniques, because the weight of the bells twists the structure whenever they ring. The cost of all this work is 2 million euros which has been financed solely from donations (still welcome, say church authorities). In spite of the hard economic times, no voices have been raised against the project.

Each of the new bells has a name and a godmother or a godfather. The now-retired Pope is the godfather of the bell called Benedict-Joseph

The Grand-Duchess of Luxemburg is godmother of Marie the new Great Tenor bell. It will join the only old bell remaining, the Great Tenor Bell Emmanuel, weighing 12 tons, which was placed in the cathedral 330 years ago by King Louis XIV. Today this is perhaps the most remarkable bell in Europe, prized for its sonority. When the new bells arrived before the cathedral on the back of two huge trucks, Emmanuel rang out to welcome his nine new confreres.

Each bell is decorated with symbols linked to its name. Anne-Genevieve is named for the mother of the Virgin Mary and for Saint Genevieve, patroness and protector of Paris. Gabriel bears the name of the Archangel who addressed Mary as “full of grace”.

Stephen is the name of the ancient Romanesque church which was originally built on the island in the Seine and bore the patronage of the first martyr. A statue of the Virgin and Child from this ancient church still stands over the great door of Notre Dame. Maurice is named in memory of Bishop Maurice de Sully who laid the first stone of the cathedral in 1163.

Denis recalls the first Bishop of Paris, sent from Rome and martyred in the city around the middle of the third century. Marcel is named for the ninth Bishop of Paris who was greatly loved by the people for his charity towards the poor and the sick. Jean-Marie bears the name of Cardinal Lustiger, who was the spiritual leader of the church in Paris from 1981 to 2005.

Each bell is also engraved with a phrase from the Angelus, the prayer which has rung from church steeples at midday since the Middle Ages and is depicted in the familiar painting by Millet. “And the Word was made flesh” … “And dwelt amongst us” …

Finally, each bell bears a text from Saint Augustine, “Via viatores quaerit” (I am the path always welcoming travellers), the motto of the Jubilee Year, which will last until 24 November 2013. “We are en route, walking towards our goal, the kingdom of God and life eternal,” explains Msgr Jacquin. 

Many other events are planned to mark this year, including a procession on the river Seine on 14 August 2013, the eve of the Assumption of Our Lady, which is a very important feast-day in this country.