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Originally published May 21, 2013 at 7:58 AM | Page modified May 21, 2013 at 2:51 PM

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Suicide at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Some 1,500 visitors were cleared out of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after a man put a letter on the altar of the 850-year-old monument Tuesday, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Associated Press

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PARIS —

Some 1,500 visitors were cleared out of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after a man put a letter on the altar of the 850-year-old monument Tuesday, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.

It's the first suicide in decades at the landmark site, Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, the cathedral's rector, told The Associated Press.

"It's unfortunate, it's dramatic, it's shocking," Jacquin said. The motives for the suicide, and the contents of the man's letter, were unclear.

The Paris prosecutor's office identified the man as 78-year-old Dominique Venner.

Venner's blog describes him as a historian and essayist, and includes description of his involvement in the campaign against France's new law authorizing gay marriage. In some posts he criticizes "massive immigration" and what he describes as encroaching Islam; others include historical analysis of revolution or American-European relations.

It says he fought with French forces against Algerian independence fighters a half-century ago in a war that ended with France losing its most prized colony.

Police ushered people out of the cathedral after the shooting, Interior Minister Manuel Valls told reporters from the grand stone plaza in front of Notre Dame. "We call for compassion," he said.

"Notre Dame is the cathedral of Paris, one of the capital's - and the country's - most beautiful monuments, so we realize how symbolic this event truly is."

It's highly unusual for the cathedral, visited by some 13 million people from around the world every year, to be evacuated.

Police, the Paris prosecutor and church employees gathered inside the cathedral, while puzzled tourists crowded outside on the island in the Seine River that has been home to the cathedral since the 12th century.

The cathedral reopened for an evening service that church officials said would include a prayer for the man who committed suicide and other struggling souls.

Tuesday's death comes less than a week after another unusual suicide in central Paris, when a man shot himself in front of a dozen schoolchildren at a private Catholic school in the French capital.

Jacquin said a few people had committed suicide by jumping from Notre Dame's two towers, but he had no knowledge of anyone ever committing suicide on the altar. The Eiffel Tower occasionally shuts down because of suicides or attempts to jump off its ledges.

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