As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.
It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.
Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.
Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?
I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.
The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:
PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.
So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.
The fire is another blow for Catholics in France, where a cardinal was recently convicted of a sexual abuse coverup. Catholic churches in the country have reportedly come under attack in recent months; a cross of human excrement was found at one church and a beheaded statue of Jesus at another.
Far more to the French than just a tourist attraction, Notre Dame — “she,” as the French refer to “Our Lady” — is very much a working church. Among the roughly 30,000 people who walk through the massive arched entryway every day are devoted Catholics who worship under its wondrous stained-glass windows, attending one of its many masses and vespers.
The headline on our case study No. 2 — currently the main Notre Dame fire story featured at this major website — states: “A France in Turmoil Weeps for a Symbol of Paris’s Enduring Identity.” The overture:
Notre-Dame has occupied the heart of Paris for the better part of a millennium, its twin medieval towers rising from the small central island wedged between the storied left and right banks.
Now, France is burning.
The fire at Notre-Dame happened on the day that the country’s troubled president, Emmanuel Macron, was supposed to explain how he intended to address the demands of the “Yellow Vest” movement. An anguished, restless nation has struggled to cope with the monthslong uprising and with the frayed social safety net that spurred the protests. Generations that had come to rely on this social safety net, as a matter of national pride and identity, see it going up in smoke.
On Monday, so was the cathedral, which for centuries has enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness. The symbolism was hard to miss.
Which lengthy feature was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional? That would be No. 1, drawn from The Washington Post. Case study No. 2 is from an arts critic at The New York Times.
Some of the best information I heard during television reports focused on the strategies used to fight the fire and heroism of specific individuals who rushed to save some of the Notre Dame’s sacred treasures.
I cannot wait to hear the stories of the firefighters to apparently stayed IN THE BELL TOWERS during the blaze to fight sparks a flames from the nave’s roof — preventing the fire from spreading to the wooden structures holding the giant bells of Notre Dame. Other firefighters — knowing that the wooden roof structures were doomed — focused on saving the priceless lead-and-glass rose windows.
This tweet captures some of that info. I have added a few crucial tweets that followed:
So what was saved?
Well, there is this treasure, for one thing.
Here at GetReligion, my colleague Clemente Lisi had, days earlier, written a feature about the recent series of fires and acts of vandalism at French churches. Lisi and I quickly rewrote the top of that post and put it up about 3 p.m. EDT yesterday. The headline: “If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?” So far, about 22,000 people have read that post.
Here’s the crucial passage in that piece:
For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.
It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.
There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.
But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.
Yes, there are many questions to be asked.
I have read a dozen or so commentaries, so far, about the Notre Dame fire and here is the one that has stuck with me — written by an American journalist who became an Anglican priest in England and is now a married Roman Catholic priest in Greenville, S.C. That’s where — at the start of this remarkable journey — he graduated from Bob Jones University.
Father Dwight Longenecker put this headline on his post: “Notre Dame: Was It Arson?” The piece mixed architecture, church history and some questions journalists will need to face. This lengthy passage is crucial:
Yes, the blaze was a disaster, and the raging fire looked like the whole place must have been destroyed. It was easy to draw this conclusion because we know that a fire burns UP and assume the fire started below and must have burned everything in the nave it before it reached the roof.
However, this is not what happened. In fact this could not happen in a building like Notre Dame. This is down to the way the church is designed. The whole building, except for the roof is constructed from stone. The ceiling of the nave is a vault designed by interlocking arches all built from stone. This acts like a cap covering the nave. To protect the vaulting, on top of that is the comparatively lightweight wooden roof structure which is invisible to anyone in the interior. It is this wooden roof which went up in flames, and the fire apparently started there in what is essentially attic space.
If a fire started at floor level it could have gutted the interior, but it would have been almost impossible for the flames to reach the height of the roof beams, and even if the fire went that high it would have to burn through the stone vault to reach the roof beams.
This design element explains why most of the interior was spared and why the restoration will not be that long or that expensive. They will have to repair the damage to the vault where, I believe the central spire crashed through the stone vaulting, and they will have to design and build a new roof, at least that’s how it looks this morning.
Now for his questions:
If all the workers and members of the public had already left the building how did the fire break out in that attic space on the other side of the stone vault? The cathedral was being restored. Was that area being restored? I believe the central spire (which by the way was a comparatively modern addition — having been created by the Victorian restorer-architect Viollet le Duc) was being restored. What started the fire in the roof space?
Was it arson?
There has been a rash of vandalism including suspected arson attacks on French churches in recent weeks, and there is a mysterious video circulating of an individual in the balcony space of the two towers of Notre Dame after the blaze had already started. Furthermore, three years ago some jihadist women were arrested for planning to blow up Notre Dame. One of them, Ines Madani, was just sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison. The co-incidence with Ines Madani’s sentencing is very disturbing.
Tourists have access to the balcony space of the two towers and one assumes access to the roof space is at that level. Could someone have hidden up there and then after the cathedral closed entered the roof space and started the fire? I guess it could be possible.
Of course the fire could have started in the roof space by itself. Workers may have left an appliance on and it overheated. A tossed cigarette smoldered on some oily rags. Solvents may have brewed together and burst into flame. The roof of the spire was sheathed in lead. Maybe the process to restore the lead involved smelting and a small furnace which overheated. The fire investigators will do their job, and the French police will do their job.
Until we have the facts we’ll just have to wait and see, and hope and pray that those involved in the Cathedral’s restoration take the opportunity to restore it with faith, humility and common sense.
I will end with a few other tidbits from Twitter and online sources.
There is no question that the day included heroes, and one priest-firefighter in particular.
That name again, care of National Catholic Register:
Reports indicate that the major religious and artistic treasures of the cathedral were removed as the fire began, including a relic of the crown of thorns.
Etienne Loraillère, an editor at France's KTO Catholic Television, reported that “Fr. Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Firefighters, went with the firefighters into Notre-Dame cathedral to save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament.”
One more thing. In an age of smartphone cameras, you knew that there would be some haunting images of what was lost — captured in digital images shortly before this catastrophe.
We will will end with this.
FIRST IMAGE: A Paris police drone shot, circulating on social media.