Column: Notre Dame Consumed by Flames During Holy Week


By Marek P. Zabriskie

As flames consumed France’s Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday and reports traveled quickly around the world, everyone who had set foot inside the majestic sanctuary felt like a little piece of them was perishing in the fire.

There is something in most of us, even the most doubting agnostic, that can appreciate the numinous and understands the power of sacred places, which inspire reverence in us all.  Notre Dame is one such sacred site.  It is a landmark of world heritage.

Each year, nearly 13 million tourists visit the cathedral, simply known as Notre-Dame or Our Lady, named for the Virgin Mary.  They come from every corner of the world to see the flying buttresses, the stained glass windows and the famous Gothic building, where kings have been crowned and bishops have been consecrated.

It was here, in 1804 that Napoleon snatched a crown from a stunned Pope and crowned himself as Emperor.  It is here in 1831 that Victor Hugo so aptly set his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  This landmark has withstood military conquests, outbreaks of the plague, the French Revolution, rioting Huguenots, previous fires and the Nazi invasion.  It exemplifies resiliency.

The last time I was in Paris, our youngest daughter and I stayed on the Isle de Saint Louis, a short walk from Notre Dame.  Being the daughter of an Episcopal priest, she had been dragged to countless churches.  So, she chose not to enter but just to enjoy the cathedral’s exterior.

I have climbed the cathedral many times to look down on the Seine, St. Julien-le-Pauvre, where Thomas Aquinas worshipped, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, who James Joyce lived in the upstairs and Hemingway frequented, and a cluster of half-timbered buildings from the Middle Ages.

I occasionally worshipped at the cathedral while I lived in Paris after college.  Notre Dame feels like part of my story, in a city where I scraped by on $3 a day and attended Mass in a different historic church each Sunday and barely scratched the surface of the ancient and venerable places to pray.

The Christ Church Greenwich Choristers and Choir have twice traveled to France to sing in Notre Dame, singing for the French bicentennial in 1989 and again in 2001.  “It was exquisite.  The acoustics were amazing.  The children didn’t fully realize at the time how significant an experience it was to sing there,” recalls former chorister mother Karen Royce, whose daughter Wesley sung at Notre Dame and is moving back to Greenwich this week.

When the Christ Church Choristers sung at Notre Dame, they were leading worship.  Few people in the world have this unique experience.  They didn’t ogle from a distance like tourists but participated while the Mass was being celebrated.  These young Greenwich boys and girls took part in something ancient, venerable and life-transforming that had been reenacted countless times since the cathedral was quasi-completed by 1260 A.D.

I have been invited to participate in the celebration of the Mass at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  To do so is to feel oneself entering into history, connecting with hundreds of chapters of history and countless lives, like a sacred mingling of the living and the dead in a liminal space where prayers have been uttered and made valid for centuries.

I have also watched a church where I served nearly burn to the ground after a thunderstorm on my birthday.  Lightning hit a transformer behind the church, which ignited a fire in the roof of historic St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, where General Jeb Stuart worshipped during the Civil War.

Parishioners and I spent the evening standing in the street and watching as flames consumed the roof, which eventually collapsed into the sanctuary, leaving a charred church that looked like it had been hit by a V2 rocket in the London blitz.  Miraculously, the Tiffany windows survived.

A young man in his 30s was watching the evening news at his parents’ home when he saw pictures of the fire.  “My church is burning.  I’m going down there,” he said.  “That’s not your church,” said his mother.  “Since when do you worship there?”  “Don’t tell me what’s my church,” he replied.  “I’m going to see if I can help.”

He did indeed help, and not just that night, but for years to come.  He became active in a new way.  Many people did.  The fire actually drew new members who wanted to help rebuild an historic church.  The congregation rallied, raised great sums of money, rebuilt the church, made improvements and added new space.  Today, the church is stronger and more vital than ever.  The most recent Rector has become the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral.

This is Holy Week.  It is an especially poignant and painful time to see Notre Dame so damaged by flames.

A painful time too that saw, during the past month, three African-American congregations in Louisiana burned to the ground, not by accident but by arson.  Racism consumes what it does not value and understand.  It’s heart-breaking to see a house of God destroyed and hatred vanquish a place of love.

During Holy Week, two billion Christians around the world will retell the story of how Jesus perished.  We will celebrate how God can take the worst of things and transform them into the best of things.  One can only hope and pray that out of the ashes of Notre Dame and the parishes burned in the South that the phoenix will rise to carry out its sacred mission of bringing beauty, tranquility and inspiration to a world that needs unity, harmony and hope.

In Holy Week we retell the story of how Jesus perished.  The movement that Jesus started came to a crashing halt.  Everything looked lost.  Then God raised Jesus from the dead and sent him back to the very people who had taken his life.  The unimaginable took place and transformed how we see reality.

A movement was born that led to the creation of the Church, which has led to the creation of the first hospitals and universities, fostered the arts, created countless centers of community and have provided care for the poor and indigent.  It fostered places like Notre Dame, which is not a museum, but a spiritual center that has made an impact for nearly a thousand years.  It must be rebuilt.  Like Jesus’ mother who witnessed her son as he perished, Notre Dame, the cathedral named after her, shall rise and have new life, perhaps greater than we can even imagine.

The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie, is the Rector of Christ Church.

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