A major blaze engulfed and partially destroyed Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral April 15, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke over the center of the French capital.

The fire erupted about 6:30 p.m. local time and burned for several hours before firefighters contained the blaze early in the morning of April 16. The fire destroyed the 850-year-old cathedral's spire and roof, but its façade and bell towers – made famous in Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" – remained intact.

Various news outlets in Paris reported that the cathedral’s 13th century North Rose stained glass window and many artifacts – including what is believed to be a relic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during His Passion – were also saved.

More than 400 firefighters fought the blaze. There were no deaths and one firefighter was reported injured.

Authorities said the cause was not certain, but that it could be linked to renovation work that the cathedral was undergoing, the BBC reported. In 2018, the Archdiocese of Paris opened an urgent fundraising appeal to save the cathedral, which was starting to crumble.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared the fire a national emergency. He tweed that “an entire nation (is) affected… I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn." He also tweeted his “thanks to my many foreign counterparts who have expressed their support to France and the French people, wounded in the heart of their culture, history or faith. I am touched by their messages of compassion.”

He added that he would “call on the world's greatest talents’ to help rebuild the cathedral because “Notre Dame of Paris is our history, our literature, our imagination. The place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives," Macron said from the scene.

The Associated Press reported that as the cathedral burned, locals and tourists gathered across the river from Notre Dame to pray and sing hymns. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers.

Le Monde, a Paris daily newspaper, reported that the fire erupted in the attic of the cathedral. Televised images showed the church's iconic steeple ablaze and finally collapsing.City officials cordoned off the area around the Gothic-style church and urged people to evacuate the immediate surroundings.

"Everything is burning. The framing, which dates from the 19th century on one side and the 13th on the other, there will be nothing left," Andre Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, told Agence France-Presse.

At one point, emergency responders entered the cathedral in an attempt to preserve priceless art and statues from destruction.

The blaze elicited emotional responses from throughout France as Christians began the observance of Holy Week.

"I had a scream of horror. I was ordained in this cathedral," Bishop Eric Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops' conference, said in reaction to the disaster. “This tragedy reminds us that nothing on this earth is made to last forever. It is a part of our flesh that is damaged."

The magnitude of the fire resonated with church leaders as well as those involved in preserving culturally important sites around the world.

The Vatican issued a statement saying that it learned "with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world."

"We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation," the statement said.

Pope Francis, in a message April 16 to Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, expressed his solidarity with the sadness of Parisians, calling Notre Dame "an architectural jewel of a collective memory, the gathering place for many major events, the witness of the faith and prayer of Catholics in the city."

The pope also expressed his confidence that the cathedral would be rebuilt and continue its vocation as "a sign of the faith of those who built it, the mother church of your diocese, (and) the architectural and spiritual heritage of Paris, France and humanity."

In a statement, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, said, “It was with horror that I saw the pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris ablaze.  Having visited that magnificent gothic Church and prayed in it many times, I join all of those in France and elsewhere who  receive this news with such pain.”

Cardinal Wuerl also noted, “For some 800 years, Notre Dame de Paris laid claim to the imagination and affection not just of Catholics and the people of France but those  around the world who have recognized it as a symbol of faith, peace and  God’s presence among us. In a special way, we offer our prayers and express our solidarity  with all the people of France and particularly the faithful of the  Church of Paris of which Notre Dame is the cathedral.”

“The horrific fire that is engulfing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure," said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God," the cardinal said in a statement April 15. "Our hearts go out to the archbishop and the people of Paris, and we pray for all the people of France, entrusting all to the prayers and intercession of the Mother of God, especially the firefighters battling the fire.

"We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians," he added.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, said in a statement from the archdiocese that he immediately went to St. Patrick Cathedral next to his office in midtown Manhattan and asked through "the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!"

"God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze," he said he prayed.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural agency, said in a tweet that her office "stood at France's side to save and restore" the cathedral, which was added the organization's world heritage list in 1991.

She described the cathedral as "a priceless heritage" and that the agency was monitoring the effort to fight the blaze.

In addition, the Diocese of Rome tweeted, "We are close to our brothers and sisters of the Church of #France, to the ecclesial community and to all Parisians. United, let us pray to the Virgin Mary, revered to #NotreDame, as mother of hope and all consolations."

President Donald Trump also expressed concern for the cathedral in a tweet, writing, "So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris."

At 6 p.m. on April 15, as the fire still raged at Notre Dame, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington tolled its bells 50 times (representing the 50 “Hail Marys” of Our Lady’s rosary). The basilica issued a statement saying it was doing so “to mourn this tragedy and to mark the beginning of a new day of hope and resurrection for Notre Dame Cathedral.”

The basilica also announced that “in solidarity with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris,” it is coordinating a special online collection to help in the reconstruction of the cathedral. Financial donations and prayer intentions can be made at  www.SupportNotreDame.org.