Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral to get gift of new bells as part of 850th birthday celebration

Dignitaries, tourists and Parisians gathered in the thousands Wednesday for a ceremony and Mass marking the beginning of year-long commemoration of Notre Dame Cathedral's 850th anniversary.

The 12th-century Gothic cathedral looming over the heart of the French capital will get a set of new bells in February, one of the highlights of a year's worth of planned events including seminars, concerts of sacred music and the issuance of commemorative stamps.

Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe are among the civil and religious dignitaries taking part in Wednesday evening events marking the beginning of the cathedral's construction in 1163.

Notre Dame's new bells will go on display in February and are scheduled to be rung for the first time on March 23, 2013.

Speaking outside the cathedral before celebrating Mass, the archbishop said Notre Dame de Paris is "a symbol for Parisians and for people across the world."

After the Mass, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls spoke in front of the huge wooden doors of the cathedral's Portal of the Last Judgment.

Noting that the cathedral had survived the reigns of "80 kings, two emperors and five republics," Valls said the cathedral's 850th anniversary "is moving for all who see in its towers the image of France in all its greatness."

Each year the cathedral sees 14 million visitors. Five Masses a day are held during the week, and seven on Sunday. The structure took nearly 90 years to build.