Resurrecting Notre Dame Cathedral: It may not be the same, but true originals evolve

Notre Dame Cathedral was badly damaged in a fire Monday, setting off an outpouring of emotion around the world. Two Calgary experts talk about why it matters.

Crown of thrones rumoured to have been saved from devastating fire

Sparks fill the air as Paris fire brigade members spray water to extinguish flames as the Notre Dame Cathedral burns on Monday. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

When Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire Monday, it set off a wave of global emotion and grieving, as images of the 850-year-old structure engulfed in flames began to circulate.

Among them were a pair of Calgarians, each with their own connection to the cathedral.

For William McGrattan, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary, news of the fire was both upsetting and cause for reflection.

"Thousands of miles away, any Catholic, I think, or bishop that has a cathedral, kind of reflected and said, 'you know, this could have been a devastating event even in our own diocese," McGrattan said an interview Tuesday on The Homestretch.

"I remembered our own celebration last evening of our chrism mass, filled with 1,200 people, and just sort of reminded myself — you know, that this is a place of worship," he said.

Artifacts rescued

The sanctuary area of the Paris cathedral was destroyed, including stained glass windows dating back to the 13th century. But according to reports, and what McGrattan has heard through the clerical pipeline, a number of ancient religious artifacts were saved from destruction.

"From what I've heard — and I stand to be corrected — but I do know that they had an opportunity to recover the crown of thorns," McGrattan said.

Calgary Catholic Bishop William McGrattan. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

He added that some of the paintings were going to be restored at the Louvre, while other artifacts and elements of the sanctuary will have to be rebuilt.

"I know that many of those elements of the church and cathedral will have to be replaced. And so they are irreplaceable but they were able to recover some of the spiritual patrimony of the cathedral," he said.


For Mount Royal University historian Emily Hutchison, who specializes in medieval Paris, news of the fire was equally upsetting.

"It's devastating to see," she said in an interview on the Homestretch. "This is such an important icon of Paris. It's been a significant historical monument for 850 years plus."

For Hutchison, who said she has visited the cathedral "countless" times, one of the most significant qualities of it is its sheer size.

"When you are in its presence,  it's very much an imposing structure. It's supposed to be that way, of course — to draw the eye upwards so that you gaze towards heaven, so you have an opportunity to to 'kiss the divine,' if you will."

Balanced structure

Besides its historical appeal, Hutchison enjoyed the cathedral's visual presentation.

"Another thing that I find really beautiful about the Notre Dame Cathedral is its harmonious design," she said. "It's a beautifully balanced structure — not perfectly symmetrical because that was not an interest to medieval engineers and builders — but the balance." 

"It brings a beautiful harmony, so that's something that's really stunning," she said. "And then the craftsmanship is very detailed.… But one of the things that I always found really striking was its simplicity, even though it's got those gothic embellishments.

"It's a captivating building."

The island that's home to Notre Dame — the nucleus of Paris — has been closed to the public since Monday's fire. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Hutchison was upset over the loss of the sanctuary and the historic artifacts but felt it won't end the Notre Dame Cathedral, either.

"It wasn't the first time there was a devastating accident with the cathedral during its many centuries-long building process," she said.

"Hopefully, it can be rebuilt as honestly and as truly to its original form as is possible," she added.

Easter week

The timing of the fire also stung, coming a week before Easter, McGrattan said.

"They were to celebrate their chrism mass today," he said.

What McGrattan hoped was that there was a spiritual lesson to be drawn from the Easter story that grieving individuals can apply to resurrecting Notre Dame.

"It is a loss," he said. "And you know, entering into Holy Week as Christians, we go through that, emotions … knowing that we celebrate that death — that loss — but always we're looking to Easter and the resurrection.

"That's what people are hoping, that they can rebuild, which I think they will.

"There is that spirit and determination to do it. Maybe not [exactly] the same [as the original], but we'll try and replicate what was built over 800 years ago."

That sentiment was matched by Hutchison.

"One of the things that we as historians try to focus on when devastating accidents like this occur," she said, "is that history is dynamic and is changing. And so certainly there is going to be loss. But maybe when they rebuild and fix parts of it, they can do it in a way that respects its original form but also moves it forward into the new millennium.

With files from the Homestretch.


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: