Are Montreal's historic churches safe from fire?
'Fire prevention is really the key to heritage being preserved,' says heritage advocate
Four decades ago, Montreal had its own tragic fire in a historic and treasured church. The chapel in the city's Notre-Dame Basilica went up in flames on Dec. 7, 1978.
It took nearly five years of careful planning and work involving cabinet makers, sculptors and carpenters to restore the building, whose interior was originally completed in 1880.
The fire also led officials to take steps to ensure the basilica itself, regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, was better protected.
"The consequence was that the Notre-Dame Basilica became one of the best protected buildings in Canada for fire protection, because they've invested a lot of effort," said Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director at Heritage Montreal, an architecture conservation advocacy group.
Bumbaru added that the changes were made discreetly, "so as not to destroy the jewel you are trying to save."
"You don't see fire hoses everywhere," he said.
Bumbaru said the fire that broke out Monday at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris should serve as a wake-up call to Montreal officials that the city's other historic churches also require protecting.
Both the spire and roof of Paris' medieval cathedral were destroyed. Fundraising efforts are already underway to rebuild the iconic structure.
Churches and other heritage landmarks should be subject to an annual inspection by the Montreal fire and heritage departments, Bumbaru said.
"Fire prevention is really the key to heritage being preserved," he said.
"It's something that we have to look after properly."
Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday his government would look at ways to ensure heritage churches are better protected.
In its first budget, tabled last month, Legault's government committed $100 million over five years toward preserving the province's churches.
Alain Faubert, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Montreal, said the money was welcome but amounted to a "drop in an ocean of needs."
He said parishes have been working to ensure sprinkler systems and wiring are properly installed but the bigger issue is maintaining the buildings.
"The challenges are enormous," he said. "Of course, it's not only up to the government to act. We must act together ... to preserve our sacred spaces."
With files from Sarah Leavitt and Daybreak