On April 15, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris suffered extensive fire damage. Much of its roof burned away, and its iconic gothic spire fell after commanding the Parisian skyline since the 19th century. The city mourned, and the world helplessly looked on as France lost a symbol of its culture and tradition.
Yet, almost immediately, plans to rebuild the cathedral were set into motion. President Emmanuel Macron ambitiously announced that the Notre Dame will be rebuilt in five years. To support the costly project, donations have been pouring in from across the world. A few billionaires have already pledged several hundreds of millions of dollars. The makers of the Assassin’s Creed games, which featured the building, also contributed around half a million dollars.
No lives were lost in the fire, so why the unrestrained support for Paris? To some, the building was simply a building. There are more pressing issues in the world to divert attention and money. To many, however, what was lost was far more than the physical components burned in the fire.
Across history, value has been placed on buildings beyond their sheer utility. Often times, whether it be for cultural, religious, or patriotic purposes, buildings invoke an emotional attachment in the people they are connected to. It is why, in events like the Notre Dame fire, there is so much sadness and emotion for plain brick and mortar.
There are countless examples of buildings being lost and mourned for more than the building itself, and then being subsequently rebuilt to reassert the values they stood for.
In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the National Palace, the home of the President, suffered a catastrophic collapse. More than a residence was lost; the devastating quake killed hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of the palace showed that even the government could not provide relief. Furthermore, Haiti was the first black-led Republic and independent Caribbean state. The palace was home to the country’s first president, and its loss diminished the prestigious history of the island state. While the palace was eventually demolished, its rebuilding began in 2017.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists crashed two commercial planes into the Twin Towers in New York City. The attacks lead to the collapse of both of the 110-story testaments to American ingenuity and ambition. While they were used as office space in the financial district of NYC, their loss filled the American public with fear and dread, for the U.S. was no longer untouchable. As an answer, the rescuers of that day were hailed as heroes, and the site was rebuilt on. Today, the Freedom Tower stands where the Twin Towers once did as a physical monument to American resilience and the victory of freedom over terror.
More recently, arson attacks burned three historically black churches in Louisiana around the same time as the fire that struck Notre Dame. The attacks, deemed hate crimes, attempted to assert a message of intimidation and white supremacy. While Notre Dame’s well-known story is worthy of sympathy, these churches have an unspoken history of resistance and community. Despite the discrimination black communities across the southern U.S. have felt, these churches showed the courage to band together and find comfort in their faith and in each other. In an uplifting turn of events, the Notre Dame fire has actually shed light on the Louisiana fires and has helped in raising funds to rebuild those churches as well.
As the Notre Dame burned, Paris froze and the city watched. The faithful sang hymns around the cathedral, praying for its survival. France has had a rich and colorful heritage in art and religion that many French people feel deep personal connections to. Mourning the Notre Dame was an act of cultural solidarity.
The public discourse in France is no longer as gloomy and hopeless as it was that day. There are now inspired talks on how to rebuild the cathedral, perhaps with a modern twist — especially in regards to the spire. Yes, the building itself has been lost for the moment. However, it was not just a place for mass and a site for gawking tourists. The values it stood for still flow through France and motivate its rebuilding. Church bells continue to ring throughout Paris and the world this morning, and Notre Dame’s will soon join them again.