Notre Dame fire kindles memories for Winnipeggers who recall St. Boniface Cathedral blaze

The looks on Parisians' faces as Notre Dame Cathedral burned on Monday mirrored the emotions Philippe Mailhot saw when Winnipeg's St. Boniface Cathedral burned in 1968.

'It was a moan and a gasp from the crowd in Paris, exactly as there was in St. Boniface'

Philippe Mailhot remembers the reaction of the crowd as the St. Boniface Cathedral bell towers collapsed in Winnipeg in 1968. (Maurice Desloges)

The looks on Parisians' faces as Notre Dame Cathedral burned on Monday mirrored the emotions Philippe Mailhot saw when Winnipeg's St. Boniface Cathedral burned in 1968.

"When the tower, that central tower fell, it was a moan and a gasp from the crowd in Paris, exactly as there was in St. Boniface when the bell towers collapsed," Mailhot said Tuesday morning. "You literally can't believe that something like that is happening."

Mailhot, a former director of the St. Boniface Museum, and Father Marcel Carriere, the current pastor at St. Boniface Cathedral, both see many similarities between the fires in Paris and in St. Boniface 50 years earlier, although the scale of the buildings was quite different.

In addition to being fires in Catholic cathedrals, both buildings were historic monuments of great importance to the communities where they were built, both were under renovation when fire broke out and both were tourist attractions.

"It was really the symbol, sort of the iconic symbol, for the old city of St. Boniface," which was not part of Winnipeg at the time and was sometimes called the Cathedral City, Mailhot said.

"The cathedral ruins are still one of the more popular tourist destinations an Winnipeg and Manitoba. I take tours there all the time, and whether it's locals from Winnipeg or people from … out of the country … they are moved by the ruins."

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Mailhot was 13 and visiting an aunt in St. Boniface when the cathedral, which was built in 1908, caught fire and rapidly burned.

"What I remember is, walking towards the cathedral, was this ball of flame," he said.

The Winnipeg fire came to mind as soon as he saw the scaffolding around the spire at Notre Dame, he said. The St. Boniface Cathedral fire was sparked in the attic by one of the workers repairing the roof.

Mailhot recalls that people rescued items from the St. Boniface Cathedral as the roof burned, and apparently the same thing happened at Notre Dame.

He also believes that Notre Dame will be restored, though that did not happen with St. Boniface Cathedral. The current building was constructed within the still-standing walls of the old cathedral but it isn't nearly as grand, in part because the parish didn't have the millions of dollars needed to rebuild, and in part because a decision was made to build a more community-oriented space.

A clear view to the sky can be seen through the space that once held St. Boniface Cathedral's large stained-glass window. (Winnipeg Tribune collection/University of Manitoba Archives)
It's unclear whether any of Notre Dame's stained glass survived the fire, but the glass is gone from this opening. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Carriere, the current St. Boniface pastor, says he has prayed at Notre Dame and he feels the loss of that church deeply.

"There is an atmosphere that sort of inspired prayer," he said of the Parisian monument.

He's from rural Manitoba so he never went to the old St. Boniface Cathedral, but he does remember that people in rural areas were also saddened by its loss.

"It was the focal point of the parish," he said.

Smoke rises from the ruins of St. Boniface Cathedral on July 22, 1968. (Winnipeg Tribune collection/University of Manitoba Archives)

While St. Boniface Cathedral was never restored to its former stature, Carriere also feels the international significance of Notre Dame will ensure it is rebuilt on a similar scale to the burned structure.

He has heard others in Winnipeg speak of the hurt they feel at the loss of Notre Dame, but he also thinks his parishioners will feel a sense of gratitude as they celebrate Easter this weekend.

"We had lost it 50 years ago. We got a cathedral back and we're glad to have it," he said.

A postcard shows St. Boniface Cathedral's interior before the fire. (Rob McInnes Postcard Collection/Winnipeg Public Library)
The front wall of St. Boniface Cathedral still stands, although its bell towers collapsed — a fate avoided by the twin bell towers of Notre Dame. (Manitoba Government Historic Resources Branch)

About the Author

Lara Schroeder

Copy editor

Lara Schroeder is an online copy editor for CBC Manitoba who dabbles in writing and radio. She started her career as a reporter at small-town community newspapers, but her English degree and habits nurtured by her English teacher dad and grammatically meticulous mom steered her toward editing. Her many jobs have included editing at the Toronto Star, the National Post, the Toronto Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press.


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