Yesterday, flames destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. This modern-day tourist attraction and centuries old holy site was ablaze for hours. As news organizations broadcast the sight of the huge engulfing flames around the world, what started the blaze was a mystery. People assembled nearby were heard saying prayers and singing hymns and folk songs. I couldn’t imagine the loss the residents of Paris felt as they watched the flames rise. Nor could I imagine how they and millions of people around the world who revere Notre Dame Cathedral as a holy site felt as they watched, helpless to stop its destruction, especially during what many believe to be a holy week.
I visited France for the first time when I was 19 years old. I went to Paris via Calais with one of my English cousins. We stayed in Paris for a week. During that time, we tried—and succeeded—to see as many of the famous sites and areas of the city as we could. We stood under the Arc de Triomphe dwarfed by its height and history. We walked through Montmartre, first climbing up to the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur then descending the hill and distractedly looking at everything around us as we found our way to the Moulin Rouge theatre so we could take a photo of its red and white windmill. We took an evening boat cruise along the River Seine. We ascended the Eiffel Tower after dark to see the famed “city of lights” lit up for miles around us; and we spent an entire day exploring the halls and gardens of the Palace of Versailles.
With all of this activity, one might think that visiting a cathedral might not have had a lasting effect on a 19-year-old. However, Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the places I visited during that trip to Paris that has stuck with me. First, for its beauty because the artisanship that went into designing and building the church so many centuries ago are incredible. Think about the skill that it took to direct where each stone was to be laid perfectly to adhere to the plans drawn by the architects without modern tools. Think about how each stone weathered the elements of nature and time, and withstood devastation from wars and revolutions as eight centuries passed. Think about the artists tasked to create the huge stained glass windows that pictorially tell biblical stories, while maintaining their bright colours under the glare of sunlight.
Notre Dame at 19
As I’ve grown older, I still hold the awe I felt when I first saw Notre Dame Cathedral—and truth be told it’s the same awe I feel whenever I visit other great cathedrals, mosques, temples, and holy sites when I travel—but I feel something else too. Because I value all aspects of history, I also have respect for the suffering that would have been endured by the people who worked tirelessly to build these structures. It’s important to remember that these holy monuments did not construct themselves; these opulent buildings were built by poor labourers whose lives would have been considered less valuable than the stones used to build each wall. These people would have toiled long hours in harsh conditions for little pay; and these conditions could have affected the lives of 10 to 12 generations over the course of the 200 years it took to build a church that they might not have been able to enter once built because of their position in society.
I’ve written this not to be disrespectful of the loss of this architectural wonder, but to be mindful that the loss was greater than just bricks and mortar: The energy, sweat and blood of thousands of labourers over 200 years is entwined with each stone from the cathedral’s roof and walls. Sometimes in the face of incredible beauty, we forget about the tragic things that may be required or necessary to create such beauty. Every time I visit a great church in Europe, I think about these things. I think about the thousands upon thousands of people whose labour was needed to build such a great monument.
Whichever, perspective you choose to view this from, the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral is a significant loss from our historical record. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see it with my own eyes and to have personal memories of it I can recall at any time. However, as the loss of the physical structure of Notre Dame Cathedral is mourned, I also mourn any lives that were lost in its original construction centuries ago and the human energy invested over eight centuries to refurbish and maintain it.