By Joe Darby
I was approaching my house after doing some errands Monday afternoon when I first heard the news on the car radio. One of the world’s greatest structures — Notre Dame de Paris — was burning.
I will admit that the older I get, the more emotional I get, and tears immediately came to my eyes. I had visited the cathedral on a trip to Paris 48 years ago. It was one of the great experiences of my life, but even if I had never stepped foot inside of the historic church, I would have been saddened.
I rushed inside, turned on the TV news and saw it for myself, this extraordinary, historical and ancient building was engulfed in flames. When the central spire collapsed, it brought to mind the fall of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, though thank God with no loss of life in Paris.
For a while it looked as if the whole building would be lost, but the outer shell has been saved and many of the priceless relics inside, including the Crown of Thorns and the cape of St. Louis from the 1100s, were saved, as well as other works of art. Thanks go to a group of priests, French firefighters and perhaps some volunteers for this effort.
One of the great ironies of this tragedy, as many commentators have been saying, is that Notre Dame has survived 850 years of tumultuous history only to fall, apparently, to some kind of accident involving its renovation. If you remember, a similar fire broke out at New Orleans’ historic Cabildo, which goes back to the 1790s, in 1988. That blaze, which caused heavy damage, was set off by a welder’s torch on the Cabildo’s roof.
Notre Dame is not only a very special place for Parisians, the rest of France and the world’s Catholics, but it is important to all history and culture lovers because those 850-year-old stones have seen so much extraordinary history, much of it violent.
In the 1500s France suffered through vicious religious wars, with Protestants versus Catholics, mass slaughters and violence that continued for years. But Notre Dame emerged intact.
When the French Revolution broke out n 1789, violent mobs roamed through Paris, killing and destroying. The new revolutionary regime outlawed Christianity and turned Notre Dame into a “Temple of Reason.” But the church was restored and Notre Dame emerged intact.
In World War I, Paris was bombarded by long-range German artillery. But Notre Dame emerged intact.
In World War II, Hitler ordered Paris burned when he realized his troops would have to retreat from the city, but the German general refused and Notre Dame emerged intact
In recent years terrorists have struck several times in Paris, but Notre Dame emerged intact.
Then, in Holy Week, 2019, an apparent renovation accident, perhaps similar to that which caused the Cabildo fire 31 years ago, has partially destroyed the building.
Centuries of French kings and queens have walked its aisles, along with other world political, cultural and religious leaders. When Napoleon wanted to be crowned French emperor, he bade the Pope to come up to Paris for the ceremony in Notre Dame. The pope obliged the powerful French leader but when he prepared to place the imperial crown on Napoleon’s head, the little general took the crown from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. His ego was ultimately rewarded by his defeat at Waterloo a few years later.
I still have a nice tourist’s booklet on Notre Dame wonderfully illustrated with black and white photos, that I acquired on my visit in 1971. It says that the corner stone was laid in 1163, the main altar was consecrated in 1182 and the cathedral was finally completed in 1250. The name of the architect of this wonderful building is unknown, but people worldwide are mourning the damage to his masterpiece 850 years later.
The French have already announced that the church will be rebuilt. It won’t be quite the same, of course, because there are no medieval craftsmen around who know exactly how to fashion such a magnificent structure But Notre Dame will arise, hopefully to stand for another 850 years.
Let me close with a passage from the tourist booklet, written in 1968. “In spite of wars, revolutions or evolutions, changes, variations or volte-face it withstands all.” And in spite of April 15, 2019, it will indeed withstand all.