News reporter and Grant resident Shannon Riley was traveling to Paris the day after the Notre Dame fire. She was visiting her daughter Olivia Genereux, a 2012 Mahtomedi graduate who has been working in the French capital for six months and is celebrating her wedding anniversary with her husband Joe Genereux. It was Riley’s report five days after the fire.
The Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine is flooded with solemn onlookers who file slowly past the northeast side of Notre-Dame de Paris through a restricted viewing area. Many raise their hands to their lips, stifling tearful sighs.
Notre Dame, a treasured icon of the Christian faith and historic French Gothic cathedral, still stands nobly but weakened by a catastrophic fire on Monday April 15. The fire started accidentally, on the roof where major renovation work had begun.
The catastrophic damage to Notre Dame Cathedral was felt as a personal wound by Parisians and the millions of Catholics and non-Christians who have held this living place of worship a beacon for all believers.
The City of Light is still in mourning while committing to rebuilding a monument which, in free visit, welcomes more than 13 million visitors a year. Still a parish church, Notre-Dame serves as a monument, a museum and, generally, a grand stage for national mourning and celebrations.
The construction of Notre-Dame began in 1163 and lasted almost 200 years. The structure has withstood the ravages of time, revolution and war. It is owned by the French state and was uninsured due to cost constraints.
No one perished and few were injured in the fight against the fire. Praises are given to the hundreds of valiant firefighters, the Pompiers de Paris and those who saved many of the famous artifacts housed at Notre Dame. French government leaders including President Emmanuel Macron, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and business leaders have pledged to rebuild. At breakneck speed, $1 billion has already been raised, including hundreds of millions pledged by two of France’s wealthiest fashion families.
Paris’ famous skyline is without the intricate 315-foot bell tower of Notre-Dame. However, the famous flying buttresses still engage the edge of the vertical walls, and scorched and crippled scaffolding continues to hover above the collapsed lead-sheathed wooden roof. The gargoyles, with stone eyes, remain.
French television showed drone footage of the interior of the black-and-white tiled nave where piles of charred wood covered the floor of the atrium. Hundreds of monuments and religious artefacts have remained in the chantries or chapels which surround the apse and the altar. The wooden pews were still lined up as if ready for mass. The marble pieta, the Virgin Mary draped with the body of her son, Jesus, and the golden cross hanging above, still prevail. Dozens of candles were still burning a few days after the fire.
To universal relief, the twin soaring spiers and many intricate stained glass windows, including the circular rose window, appeared intact, but the lead that connects the pieces of glass was put at risk by the fierce temperatures that reached over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. . Adding insult to injury, the dramatic shift from intense heat to freezing cold from fire hoses affects the strength of structural materials like stone and iron. Following an examination of the cathedral by dozens of forensic engineers and architects, many questions about the integrity of the structure persist.
The challenges of rebuilding Notre-Dame are multiple. True conservationists want decision makers to commit to retaining as much of the original Gothic-era architecture and 800-year-old building techniques as possible.
Is it possible to recreate the historic Notre-Dame? Or should the restructured cathedral evolve and be rebuilt to withstand the threats of fire, decay, erosion and attack? Wood and lead, or titanium and steel? Will the “new” Notre-Dame be built with 21st century technology, fireproof materials and a futuristic methodology? Or will the final answer be a combination of the two?
The approach to rebuilding Notre Dame will be influenced by the ambitious timetable proposed by Macron, who invoked French pride in resilience, innovation and work ethic. An architectural design competition for the new spire has already been announced.
The five-year period, which Macron says is achievable, would have full restoration by the 2024 Summer Olympics, which France will host. Skeptics of the timeline abound; many say that the reconstruction could take more than 30 years. Notre Dame was originally built with hundreds of tons of stone quarried from Normandy and 13,000 oak beams on the ceiling. It would take about 3,000 solid oaks, which are harder to find today, to replace the beams.
Other social and ethical challenges swirl around the reconstruction of Notre Dame, particularly in light of recent anti-government protests by yellow vests in Paris. The Yellow Vest movement, which began as a voice for economic justice, has morphed into weekly protests by those who condemn perceived social inequality. Protesters believe the French working class has been abandoned by its government. Citizens in yellow vests have headed to affluent Parisian enclaves like Montparnasse and along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to stage weekly protests against carbon taxes and government measures to cut pensions.
Numerous government concessions have already been made in response to yellow vest demands, but the quick promise of money and government support for the reconstruction of Notre Dame has sparked a new furor over socio-ethical issues.
Representatives of the press monitor and film the daily news from the Pont de la Tournelle. Along the Seine on La Rive Gauche (the Left Bank), tourists lean over the stretched wall towards the battered cathedral. Musicians play liturgical chants and melancholic odes to the spirit and resilience of Notre-Dame. Spectators take selfies with calm faces. The calm is surreal, as if strangers are gathered in prayer.
The tumult and respect for cultural heritage have long been woven into the fabric of French society and are essential to its evolution. The country, which has suffered many setbacks, is reinventing itself. It is likely that the French will face their current challenges with the same pride and perseverance for which they are known. Restoring their beloved Notre-Dame de Paris can also restore their faith.