Anne-Marie Welsh

Flames and smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out in Paris, April 15, 2019. Officials said the cause was not clear, but that the fire could be linked to renovation work.
CNS photo, Benoit Tessier, Reuters

It may well become one of those moments each of us will remember: Where were you when you heard the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire?

People tuned in to watch the scene unfold, live. The stunned faces of the crowd were reflected in our own. We watched the spire fall. We witnessed people falling to their knees, singing and praying.

For many, it was puzzling to see what appears to be a concrete structure go up in flames, although experts explained that its internal structure was made of wood. Fox News shared this nugget about the wood inside the cathedral’s roof:

Known as the “Forest,” the wood roof is made up of centuries-old oak trees that were added to the cathedral in 1220. According to reports, when workers began constructing the roof, they cleared 50 acres of oak trees that were already 300 to 400 years old at the time. That puts the oldest timber in the cathedral at nearly 1,300 years old. Read the full story at https://www.foxnews.com/world/notre-dame-macrons-vow-rebuild-unrealistic

Celebrities weighed in on the event, but few said it better than Anne Hathaway, who posted this on Instagram, along with a picture of the cathedral’s magnificent rose window:

“I know this is an inspired representation of an even greater divinity. I know this blessed place is a human-made interpretation of what is mysterious, unknowable, and undefinable and while seeing her burn brings tears to my eyes, I know even flames cannot diminish her sacredness. Still, not her. Please. Not her. #notredame #ourlady

The earliest photos to emerge from the interior of the cathedral were heart-stopping: A golden cross connected to a marble statue of Mary, holding her son after the crucifixion, seemed to glow, even as debris smoldered around it. Hearts around the world soared at what seemed like the message everyone wanted to hear in this week before Easter: God is with us. There is hope. There is new life. Find the pictures at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/04/after-fire-photos-inside-notre-dame-cathedral/587299/

Even as the fire was still burning, French President Emmanuel Macron began rallying his people.

“Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicenter of our lives,” he said. “Let’s be proud, because we built this cathedral more than 800 years ago, we’ve built it and, throughout the centuries, let it grow and improved it. So, I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together."

The next day, he set an ambitious goal.

“We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years," he told a national television audience. "We can do it…we will rebuild it together."

While experts immediately began weighing in on the loftiness of Macron’s aspirations, the president had seized an important opportunity to inspire.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the media alongside Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, left, and Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, outside Notre Dame Cathedral, April 16, 2019, after a fire broke out in the iconic Paris structure.
CNS photo, Philippe Wojazer pool via Reuters

Realistically, the job ahead is gargantuan.

CNN quoted architectural historian and broadcaster Jonathan Foyle as saying that “Notre Dame has virtually no building records. We know (that construction) started in 1163 and was basically completed by about 1240, but there are no building accounts.”

Securing the building for safety, forensic investigations and covering the roof to protect the building from further damage were widely reported to be among the first priorities.

Are there people with the skills necessary to handle the restoration?

“We have plenty, and we have plenty of people who can train others,” master mason John David said in the same CNN report. In fact, he noted that the process would be valuable.

“It’s an opportunity to train craftspeople not just for Notre Dame, but for other buildings and disasters,” he said. “This isn’t the last.”

Among those who have already offered expertise is the Holy See.

Vatican News reported that Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Holy See could take part in a specific aspect of the reconstruction, and referred to the technical expertise of the Vatican Museums.

"I think an eventual future offer by the Holy See will be significant,” he said.

Many began to breathe again once they heard that precious relics housed in Notre Dame had been rescued, including the crown of thorns.

Calling it “good news in our really bad day,” Paris’ deputy mayor for tourism and sports told CBS This Morning that people had formed a human chain to save them.

“Thanks to the great bravery of all our firefighters, as well as the public servants there, we had a very quick intervention,” Jean-Francois Martins said. “A team was fully dedicated to save all these holy pieces.”

A reliquary containing what tradition holds is Jesus' crown of thorns is displayed during a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, March 21, 2014.
CNS photo, Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

Also included among the items saved was the tunic of St. Louis IX. The king, who frequently shared his table with the poor, is said to have worn the tunic as he personally carried the crown of thorns to Paris.
Notre Dame, a global treasure visited by 13 million tourists each year, is not a parish. However, the archbishop of Paris, the Most Rev. Michel Aupetit, offered words of consolation on the cathedral’s homepage within hours of the disaster.

Calling Notre Dame “our Lady, our dear cathedral,” he added: “France cries and with her, all her friends from all over the world. She is touched to the heart because her stones are the testimony of an invincible hope which, by the talent, the courage, the genius and the faith of the builders, raised this luminous lace of stones, wood and glass.  This faith remains ours. It is she who moves the mountains and we will rebuild this masterpiece.”

He continued: “Dear brothers and sisters, dear friends, thank you for all the many signs of friendship and encouragement that come from everywhere. Thank you for the outpouring of solidarity, thank you for the fervent prayer that consoles our heart. Let us take advantage of this emotion so great to live intensely this week so decisive for Christians.”

The letter also included an invitation to anyone in the world who wanted to participate.

“I propose that all persons of good will put at their window before the Easter Vigil (April 20), a candle, a candle, as we will do in all our churches by beginning the Easter Vigil with the rite of the new fire. It means that the light illuminates the darkness, that life definitely triumphs over death.”

An Erie connection was sited by GoErie.com, as Celene Kalivoda, assistant professor of finance and economics at Gannon University, sent a photo she took from the Eiffel Tower as the fire began at Notre Dame. Fortunately, she and her family had toured the cathedral earlier on their visit. See her photo at https://www.goerie.com/news/20190416/erie-woman-witnesses-fire-at-notre-dame-cathedral

People attend a vigil near Notre Dame Cathedral, April 16, 2019, a day after a fire destroyed much of the church's wooden structure. Officials were investigating the cause of the blaze, but suspected it was linked to renovation work that started in January.
CNS Photo / Paul Haring

Finally, as the devastating fire was still raging, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement to the people of Paris. His words are even more meaningful in light of the fact that he recently recovered from a stroke.

“The horrific fire that is engulfing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God. Our hearts go out to the archbishop and the people of Paris, and we pray for all the people of France, entrusting all to the prayers and intercession of the Mother of God, especially the firefighters battling the fire. We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians.”

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., has set up a fund to help the Cathedral resurrect and rebuild. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is recommending that those who would like to support this effort visit www.SupportNotreDame.org. All proceeds will be used solely for the assistance of Notre Dame Cathedral and those affected by this tragedy. Checks can also be mailed to: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Attn: Monsignor Walter Rossi, Rector, 400 Michigan Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C. 20017. Checks should be made payable to "Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception" and indicate "Cathedral of Notre Dame Fund" in the memo portion of the check.