Notre-Dame de Paris, literally “Our Lady of Paris,” but commonly referred to, simply, as Notre-Dame has long been one of the primary historical, religious and cultural symbols of Paris. It was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, and it is extremely sacred to Catholics (and many non-Catholics as well) not only in France, but also throughout the world. It sits on an island in the heart of Paris on a site that had been the location for several churches dating back to the 4th century. Featuring a massive spire, rose-colored windows, a massive vault and numerous flying buttresses, it is widely recognized as one of the best examples of French gothic architecture. When I mention “Paris” what comes to mind? Probably, the Eifel Tower, the Louvre and, yes, Notre-Dame. On April 15 much of it was damaged and destroyed by a massive fire. More on that later.
Constructing ND was a massive and complex undertaking, especially when one considers the primitive tools available at the time. Construction began in 1160 under the direction of the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully. It was not completed until 1260. Since then, there have been many modifications over then years. In fact, at the time of the fire, it was in the midst of a renovation and restoration project, which likely had a bearing on the fire.
The fire, fueled by the 800 year-old dry wood that made up the roof, aka “The Forest,” was massive. Approximately, 400 firefighters fought the blaze, which burned for over 12 hours, before it was controlled. Despite the fact that a Mass was underway, no one was killed. Some might call that a miracle and credit divine intervention because of where the fire took place. Personally, I would credit the prompt response and bravery of the firefighters, who evacuated the worshippers in a prompt and orderly manner. In fact, many observers have confirmed this to the media, and French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a gathering at the Elysee Palace to recognize their efforts and offer what his office called “words of thanks.”
As I write this, the investigation into the fire is ongoing, but the current belief is that the fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit. Obviously, this is preliminary, as firefighters have not yet deemed the building safe to enter. Authorities are taking the investigation very seriously. Some 50 investigators have been assigned to the case, and according to Remy Heitz, the prosecutor in charge, the investigation will be “long and complex.”
So, what was saved, and what was destroyed? According to NBC the major loss was the roof, the spire above it, and much of the latticework.
As I mentioned above, the roof, aka “The Forest,” was constructed of planks of wood that was 800 years old. It is believed to have been the source of the fire. This wood had become very dry and made perfect fuel for the fire. It is irreplaceable.
It should be noted that the spire, aka “la fleche, or “the arrow,” was one of the most symbolic and recognizable sights of the city. It was surrounded by 16 copper statues, which represented the four evangelists and the 16 apostles. Fortuitously, these statues had been removed as part of the aforementioned restoration project, so they were not destroyed.
What was saved?
1. The rose window. These sacred, world-renowned rose colored, stained glass windows date as far back as 1260. According to the ND website they portray Jesus sitting in heaven “surrounded by all those who have been his witnesses on earth.”
2. “Le Grand Orgue,” or “The Great Organ” consisting of some 8,000 pipes dated back to 1730.
3. “The Tunic of St. Louis.” This long, shirt-like garment is believed to have belonged to King Louis IX, who ruled France from 1226 – 1270 According to French Culture Minister, Franck Riester and Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, this was saved by first responders.
4. “The Crown of Thorns.” This is believed to have been worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion.
Although some of the treasures destroyed are irreplaceable, the cathedral, itself, can and will be rebuilt. “USA Today” has reported that over $1 billion in donations have been received to date, mostly from a few generous billionaires, and Macron has vowed that the cathedral will be rebuilt “even more beautifully” in five years. It also reported that some groups have criticized these sizeable contributions, which, in my view, should be praised, as further evidence of what they have labeled “income inequality.”
I admire and support Macron’s ambition, but in my experience these projects take much longer and cost much more than predicted. I hope he’s right, but we’ll see. It has been reported that work has already begun even though, as mentioned above, authorities have not yet deemed the building to be safe to enter. In the meantime, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet has been calling for the construction of a small temporary church on the grounds of the adjoining plaza so that those so inclined would have a place to worship.
In summary, this was a tragedy on a grand scale, but it could have been worse, much worse.