The Fire in Paris

April 18, 2019 Updated: April 23, 2019


By now, everyone has seen the images. Like millions of others, I sat fixated in front of a screen and watched the devastating fire on April 15 at historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Would the spire topple? Yes. Would any part of the 800-year-old church remain? Yes. The stone structures, including the two famous belfries, are mostly intact, and the three large stained-glass Rose windows are unbroken. Was there loss of life? Thankfully, no. And, of course, why did it start?

The cathedral’s 800-year history is intertwined with that of the French nation. President Emmanuel Macron called it the “epicenter of our life.” The building was commissioned by King Louis VII who wanted it to be a symbol of Paris’s political, economic, intellectual, and cultural power. It was built on a small island called the Ile de la Cite in the middle of the River Seine. The first stone is said to have been laid in 1163, in the presence of Pope Alexander III. It took another 200 years to complete the cathedral, at which time it was one of the tallest buildings in the world.

It was at Notre Dame in 1431 that King Henry VI of England was crowned King of France. King James V of Scotland married Madeleine of France there in 1537, and in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor inside the cathedral. This was also the site of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.

The cathedral fell into disrepair a few times. The medieval spire was taken down in 1786 because it was no longer stable and was rebuilt in the 1860s. In the early 19th century, the cathedral was crumbling and close to the point of being demolished. Victor Hugo, author of the 1831 novel, “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” focused attention on the building. He wrote of how “every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history, not only of the country, but of science and art.” This recognition prompted major restorations that took place in the mid-19th century.

In 1909, French national heroine Joan of Arc (today recognized as the patron saint of France) was beatified by Pope Pius X at Notre Dame cathedral. At the end of both World War I and World War II, the cathedral’s bells tolled in commemoration of the end of hostilities. Notre Dame was also the site of requiem Masses for French presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.

More than a museum or government building, Notre Dame was both a functioning church and a physical expression of the philosophy and religious principles that led to its construction. Those principals, as much or more than the art and beauty found in the building, drew 11 million to 13 million visitors to Notre Dame each year.

Notre Dame brought beauty, inspiration, and faith instruction to the common people. Here, peasants and royalty alike could experience music and art. They did not have to be able to read to understand the biblical and moral instruction depicted in wood, stone, and stained glass. There is no way of knowing how many saints were inspired and souls were saved by the lessons taught within the walls of the church.

That same philosophy and those same religious principles that inspired so many also made Notre Dame a target across its history. In the 16th century, French Protestants known as the Huguenots (who were long engaged in hostilities with Catholics) viewed Notre Dame as a testament to the wickedness of the papacy. They stormed Notre Dame, overturned images, removed the heads of various statues, and knocked gargoyles off the roof.

In 1793, during the French Revolution, anti-royalists desecrated the cathedral and declared it a “temple of reason.” Many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. Twenty-eight statues of biblical kings were beheaded and removed. (Archaeologists recovered them in 1977, and they have now been restored.) A goddess of liberty replaced the Virgin Mary. Most large statues on the façade were destroyed. The cathedral was eventually used as a warehouse for the storage of food and other nonreligious items.

During World War II, when Germans occupied Paris, it was rumored that the soldiers might damage or destroy the stained glass, especially the magnificent Rose windows, which were the largest 13thcentury glass windows in the world. They were removed and hidden away, only to be reinstalled after the war had ended.

In 2016, authorities foiled an ISIS plot allegedly put together by a group of radicalized women who planned to blow up a car packed with gas canisters near the cathedral. One was charged with crimes such as “terrorist criminal association to commit crimes against people” and “attempted assassinations as an organized gang in connection with a terrorist enterprise.” One of the women, Ines Madani, has yet to stand trial for the attempted attack on Notre Dame (trial is set for September), but just days before the recent fire, she was sentenced to eight years in prison by a French court for other offenses.

In 2017, a man armed with a hammer, knives, and other weapons was charged with a terrorist attack at Notre Dame, and since the beginning of this year, France has seen other attacks, including arson, vandalism, and desecration of Catholic churches. Rioters have torn down crosses, knocked over tabernacles, toppled statues, and fomented anti-Catholic sentiment across the country. On March 17, the historic Church of St. Sulpice in Paris was set on fire. No one was injured, but at last word, French authorities were still investigating the matter as arson.

That takes us back to the question of how the fire at Notre Dame started.

From very early in the process, authorities announced that it was believed to be related to ongoing renovations. Old buildings under renovation are at their most vulnerable, and that certainly was true of Notre Dame. Fifty-two acres of timber was used on the church’s interior; the roof was made of 5,000 oak trees. So many wooden beams were used in the ceiling area that it was nicknamed “the forest.” Of course, that wood had dried out over the centuries. Accumulation of combustibles and electrical equipment used in the renovations accentuated the danger. Thus, this is a very reasonable possibility.

There are, however, some other possibilities. A tweet published by TIME magazine columnist Christopher J. Hale said that “a Jesuit friend in Paris who works in #NotreDame told me the cathedral staff said the fire was intentionally set.” Hale later deleted his tweet as well as a follow-up tweet in which he admitted the claim was an “unsubstantiated rumor.”

At least two guests on U.S. television news stories were shut down when they tried to bring up the possibility of the fire having been an act of terrorism. One of them, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, was quite unhappy. He wrote, “When hosts won’t allow guests to have their own opinion—even when it is couched in entirely reasonable terms—then it’s clear that [the network, Fox] has a problem.”

I hope that the investigators are correct about the fire being an accident, but that was an incredibly quick determination. The flames were not even out when the announcement was made. Fire investigations usually take place much later and take much longer than that. Let’s hope that this rush to exonerate is more accurate than some recent rushes to accuse have been.

French President Macron has promised to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral and said he will launch an international fundraising campaign. Hundreds of millions of euros in pledges have already rolled in. “I’m telling you all tonight—we will rebuild this cathedral together,” Macron said. “Paris without Notre Dame? Madness.”

It was a sad day, but for a moment of beauty, there is a short but marvelous clip online. As they watched their city’s landmark church, Notre Dame (Our Lady) literally in flames, a group of Parisians on the street sang “Je Vous Salue, Marie” (I Salute You, Mary). It was a wonderful heartfelt tribute. God bless Paris.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.