'Notre Dame is our church’: Why famed cathedral must be rebuilt to its past glory

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before an accidental fire on April 15 destroyed its wooden roof, famed spire and much of the interior. Creative Commons photo.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before an accidental fire on April 15 destroyed its wooden roof, famed spire and much of the interior. Creative Commons photo.

NEW YORK — Despite Europe’s increased secularization, Notre Dame’s renovation should include no contemporary architectural additions, according to a group of traditionalists, as part of a larger effort by Christians to protect their religious heritage wherever it may be located around the world.

That was the key area of consensus from a panel discussion that took place at the Church of Saint Agnes in New York City, where two columnists and an architect discussed the rebuilding of the iconic Parisian cathedral partially destroyed by a fire five months ago at the start of Holy Week.

“It is a time for we Americans to relearn our patrimony in Europe. … If we’re Christians, [the cathedral is] ours too. This is our patrimony. Notre Dame cathedral is part of that, too. If we look there and say, ‘Too bad for the French,’ then we are guilty of impiety in the Roman sense,” said Rod Dreher, a senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. “I think that in my case, every time I go to Europe and to the great churches, monasteries, wherever it is, and visit the relics, I am reminded of the story of Christianity — which is my story too — has many, many, many earlier chapters.”  

Dreher, who often writes about religion and author of the book, The Benedict Option, added that “one good thing that can come out of the disaster of Notre Dame — that we Americans can learn to love our fathers and mothers in Europe.”

The panel, which convened this past Tuesday evening, also featured Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, and architect Duncan Stroik. All of them agreed that the French government — tasked with rebuilding the 12th-century house of worship — should shun modernity and focus instead on rebuilding Notre Dame in the same gothic style and architecture as it was originally intended.

The French public largely agrees. For example, a poll found that 54% said they want the cathedral to be restored exactly as it was before. Only 21 percent of those surveyed in the same poll by YouGov for two French media outlets had no opinion on the reconstruction. In addition, some 1,100 French architects and heritage experts signed an open letter shortly after the blaze of the dangers of embarking on any hasty and "precipitous" decisions regarding Notre Dame’s reconstruction.

"Let's take our time to find the right path and then set an ambitious deadline for an exemplary restoration," they urged.

This is a cathedral that has endured numerous conflicts throughout the centuries, including two world wars. Notre Dame’s cornerstone was laid in the presence of Pope Alexander III in the year 1163, but remained a work-in-progress for years. By 1250, both towers were completed. In 1844, the cathedral was restored after Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus won a competition aimed at addressing issues that included aging.

Panelists (from left to right) Michael Brendan Dougherty, Rod Dreher and Duncan Stroik discuss the rebuilding of Notre Dame at the Church of Saint Agnes in New York City. Photo by Clemente Lisi.

Panelists (from left to right) Michael Brendan Dougherty, Rod Dreher and Duncan Stroik discuss the rebuilding of Notre Dame at the Church of Saint Agnes in New York City. Photo by Clemente Lisi.

While the French government has assured Catholics that it won’t introduce any modern architecture to Notre Dame, there remain real fears that politicians see the cathedral more of a museum/tourist attraction rather than a house of worship.

Dougherty said the argument that Notre Dame and its destruction serve as an analogy of the West’s decaying religious piety is all wrong. Instead, he pointed out to the scores of people seen praying near the cathedral at the time of the fire and those in Paris who regularly attend Mass there.

“Notre Dame is actually a busy cathedral, not just with tourists walking around from America and all around the world who go there and worship God,” he said. “What they encounter there are real Christian liturgies and a local community of people who go to Notre Dame regularly. It is a functioning, living church. It is a symbol of a living faith, not a dead faith that lives in the midst of France as it is in 2019.”

This very sentiment had come from Archbishop Michel Aupetit when he celebrated Mass inside the cathedral on June 15, the first since the fire. There were about 30 attendees standing inside a side chapel, all wearing hardhats.

“This cathedral is indeed a place of worship,” he said. “That is its one and only purpose.”

For a country that has seen a rash of church vandalism, Notre Dame’s fate matters to not just the French, but Christians around the world. Only an estimated two percent of French Catholics attend services each week. Nonetheless, Notre Dame attracts an estimated 12 million visitors each year. A year before the fire, a restoration project to clean the cathedral and repair the roof and spire had been undertaken.

The panelists all expressed optimism that preserving history would win out in the end — Dougherty predicting rioting could ensure if devout Catholics were upset enough — despite a host of renderings that called for a series of outlandish additions to the cathedral such as a public swimming pool on its rooftop.  

As Religion Unplugged reported in July, there has been much speculation since the accidental April 15 blaze over what will happen to the cathedral. A symbol of both Christendom and Western civilization since the Middle Ages, a tug-of-war has traditionalists and modernists around the world split over what the restoration will ultimately look like.  

President Emmanuel Macron, who has much power over the restoration process, has said the plan is for the cathedral to be rebuilt in time for when the French capitol hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics. Experts said it remains an ambitious timetable given the scope and materials needed to embark on such a project.

Notre Dame has been the property of the French government since 1789 (the Catholic church is essentially a tenant with exclusive use since 1905). At the same time, over $1 billion has been pledged through a series of large and small donations, although architects and preservation experts have warned against speeding up the restoration process.

“Even if the government owns it,” Stroik said, “it’s our church!”

The traditionalists, fueled in part by conservative American Catholics, don’t want to see both the religious and historic significance of Notre Dame lost to the secular forces that now govern French culture and society.

Stroik, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Indiana, said preserving Notre Dame as it was before would also be part of a broader revival of gothic architecture and traditional methods such as stone carving.

“This is a time to revive appreciation for gothic architecture, for French cathedrals, for our own stuff in this country. … We can do whatever we want. We could build Chartres [cathedral] tomorrow if we wanted to, but football stadiums are nicer,” Stroik dryly joked. “I think this is a time for revival of sacred architecture. This is what I’m calling for — a revival of appreciation for Notre Dame, gothic cathedrals and great architecture in general.”

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.