Not So, Notre Dame

What really happened in the fires at Notre Dame.

Days before Easter, the historic Cathedral burns and crumbles

Just in case you’ve been off every electronic device, away from every form of printed news, and have not spoken to another human being in the last few days – Notre Dame has burned.  Thankfully, no lives were lost.  Some of the original structure is still standing, but the damage and losses were extensive and have yet to be fully cataloged.

For many people, the loss of Notre Dame is a historical tragedy.  For others, the fires raise much more pertinent real-world questions like- “What is Notre Dame?”

If you are in this second group, don’t feel embarrassed.  For many who attended school in America, Notre Dame is either a University and football team in Indiana (different pronunciation) featured in the time-honored film ‘Rudy’ or the backdrop of a children’s’ classic cartoon movie.  In fact, unless you specialized in European history, architecture, or religion at a college level, it is completely possible you went through your entire academic career without seeing the famous Cathedral as anything other than a footnote below a picture in your textbooks.

So before we get into what is happening now, some background information is needed.

You are looking at the South Rose Window, a stained glass masterpiece adorning the southern face of Notre Dame Cathedral.

‘What is Notre Dame?’

Notre Dame is a medieval Catholic cathedral in Paris France.  Construction began in 1160 and was largely completed by 1260, though continuous additions and renovations have taken place over the intervening 900 years.  It is a marvelous example of Gothic architecture (tall, dark, lots of spires), an important site for the Roman Catholic Church, and has played host to a variety of pivotal events in history, including; The French Revolution (1790), Napoleon’s Coronation (1804), and several notable funerals and baptisms.  The Cathedral is the home of the Archdioceses in Paris and is consecrated to the Virgin Mary. 

The impressive building was brought to international fame in the 1830s by a little book by Victor Hugo called ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’.  This story would later be brought to American audiences as the much-loved children’s classic ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.  The popularity of the book in the 1830s prompted a series of renovations as tourism increased until Notre Dame became a notable international tourist destination.  In 2018 the cathedral drew over 12 million people (more than even the Eiffel tower), making it the most visited site in all of Europe. 

Now that we’re caught up on the history, we can discuss the matter at hand.

The Cathedral’s roof was built from lead coated 13th-century timber over a stone structure.

What Happened

Fire alarms first went off at 6:20 pm on Monday evening.  For 23 minutes, the staff searched for the cause of the alarm with no luck.  It wasn’t until a second alarm sounded at 6:43 that the fire could be narrowed down to the attic.  By then, the wooden roof was already burning.  Fires grew and spread quickly from there, catching mostly the roof and spire, which were of wooden construction, and sparring much of the stone below.  The 900-year-old building, however, was weakened.  And without the support of its timber roof, many areas were further damaged or have become unstable.  The flames were finally subdued Tuesday morning, 15 hours after it started.

The fire itself, as heartbreaking as it may be, appears to be accidental.  As of this writing, the current theory is that an electrical short, possibly related to the renovations already underway, appears to have ignited the roof. 

No lives were lost, though two police officers and one firefighter sustained injuries during the evacuation and firefight.  The actual investigation will take years, involving over 50 inspectors, and will have to wait until the building has been cleared and stabilized.

The loss of the great spire atop the center of the Cathedral is perhaps the most visible scar from Monday night’s events.

Dante’s Inferno

Just a few days ago, on April 15, 2019, fires tore through the 900-year-old Cathedral for almost 15 hours. 

The great spire, which was visible for miles around, was perhaps the most visible victim to the flames.  The steeple was engulfed, and toppled into the burning roof, encouraging the fire to spread.  Inside the spire were statues of the Patron Saints of Paris, St. Denis, and Ste. Genevieve, which are also believed to have been lost to the flames.  The roof, which consisted of lead-coated 13th-century wood over a structure of stone, has also mostly been destroyed. 

Much of the cathedrals’ original structure was thankfully left standing, though the majority of the building is considered unsafe until inspectors can determine the extent of the damage.  In addition, the very water needed to put out the blaze may also have contributed to some of the damage of the structure and the artifacts inside.

As the building was under renovation, many artifacts had thankfully been removed during construction, and so understanding what was lost and what remains is not so simple.  Below is what we know right now.  

  • The Crown of Thorns – said to have bee worn by Jesus during the crucifixion and brought to Paris in the 1200s by King Louis IX.  The crown was retrieved by a fire chaplain who rushed into the burning building with firefighters to help rescue the relics.
  • The Great Organ- 8,000 pipes built in the 1730’s and used to fill the halls of the great Cathedral with music.  It has not been hurt by fire, but no one can confirm if it has sustained water damage.
  • The South Rose – the beautiful stained glass window was untouched, though the area around it was badly burned and the artwork may still be at risk.
  • The Tunic of Saint Louis – 13th century. Especially notably considering it is essentially cloth, but went untouched.

Other pieces of historical significance, including several artifacts from the Crucifixion, multiple paintings, and the life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, are still unknown.  Surviving pieces (other than architectural) will be stored at the Paris City Hall and the Louvre to be examined, treated, and protected while the church is still unsound.

Over 400 firefighters worked to squash the blaze that tore through Notre Dame’s roof

What Happens Next

The fire began late Wednesday evening, was quenched Tuesday morning, and, by Wednesday, over $1 billion dollars had been pledged to help restore the cathedral to its former glory.  French President Emmanuel Macron, in a move not unlike John F. Kennedy’s famous speech, if a bit more tragic, has pledged to rebuild the famed cathedral within 5 years.  An impressive feat which, if accomplished, would be a shining beacon of triumph and healing sorely needed in Paris right now.  In the meantime, the Cathedral has been completely shut, tours refunded and canceled, and will remain so for as long as the five years needed to rebuild. 

Notre Dame has never before been shut down for an extended length of time.  A religious site, it was open for regular Mass services every day, one of which had to be evacuated when the fires began.  Local shops and business owners surrounding the Cathedral depend on tourism for their livelihood and are likely to be affected.  A temporary structure has been proposed so that Mass may continue to be served while construction carries on.  No matter how things unfold, the project is sure to change the landscape of the small island on which the Cathedral rests.

Falling debris and water mar even those stone halls where the fires did not reach.

What Really Matters

Days before Easter, the catholic church lost monuments to art and history, and priceless artifacts from the crucifixion itself.  Paris is left in shock, shaking at the devastation the blaze wrought. But through this tragedy comes something else. 

It’s something American’s don’t really have a word for.  It goes beyond determination, beyond grit, beyond strength, and beyond a second wind. It is a deeply felt characteristic that somehow combines all four.

The Finn’s call it Sisu(TNN Classic picture book *Sisu).  It is not momentary bravery, but the ability to sustain courage.  It defines perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity.  The idea that what must be done, will be done, no matter what.

The Catholic Church and the City of Paris will need Sisu in the days, and years, to come.  But if they can find it, then Notre Dame will rise again, a beacon of pride and determination even grander and more revered than before.

No lives were lost.  The Spire can be rebuilt, it has been before.  So many more artworks and relics which could have been lost had already been moved to safety.  This could have been so much worse.  The fire alarms could have failed.  The people observing Mass inside the cathedral when the alarms went off could have been trapped inside.  The fire could have spread to the surrounding homes and businesses around the Cathedral.  But it Didn’t.

As people gather to applaud the 400+ firefighters who combated the Notre Dame fire, remember to give back to your community and support first responders and their families.  Use this as motivation to spend time with those around you, reconnect with people you may have lost touch with, and remember what you really value out of life.  

What would you run into a burning building for?

While the damage was extensive, much of the cathedral remains, many items went untouched and, most importantly, no lives were lost in the fire.

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