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More history yet to be written on Notre Dame

Published April 23. 2019 12:40PM

In 2010, we remember watching a news clip of a B-17 bomber burning in a cornfield outside Chicago.

Shortly after the classic war bird named the Liberty Belle departed, one of its engines caught on fire. The pilot attempted to return to the airport but couldn’t make it so he put the World War II bomber down in a cornfield.

Due to the soggy field, firefighters and their vehicles were unable to reach the burning plane.

Being just one of about a dozen B-17s still flying in the world made this a tragic loss in military preservation.

A week ago, many throughout the world experienced the same emptiness while watching flames engulf the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Some film buffs might simply know about the cathedral as a center point in Victor Hugo’s classic 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” but for Parisians and millions of others around the world, it was deep and personal.

Americans take pride in their history, but a charting of our timeline is short compared to Europeans. Construction on the Notre Dame Cathedral began more than 850 years ago in 1163, and it continued to undergo modifications up to its primary completion in the mid-13th century.

The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, meanwhile, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, is the oldest cathedral in what would become the United States. The first church on the site was built in 1718.

Reactions to last week’s Paris fire flooded social media.

One woman noted that when you approach Notre Dame, you are overwhelmed with not only the architecture — one of the finest examples of French Gothic in the world — but with the knowledge of the multitudes who have gathered and worshipped there since the 1100s.

The cathedral also has some interesting military history.

Like other churches around France during the French Revolution, Notre Dame was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space, and all 20 of its bells — except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel — were removed and melted down to make cannons.

Centuries of decay as well as vandalism left it on the verge of demolition, and for years it had been used as little more than a warehouse.

It was Napoléon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor in 1804 that elevated the cathedral to new prominence.

Seeing the blackened rubble in the cathedral sparked memories for World War II survivors who lived through the massive bombing raids in Europe.

To avoid destruction by Nazis, Notre Dame’s famed stained glass was removed. Thankfully, this priceless treasure survived last week’s blaze, as did the iconic bell towers.

Fast work by firefighters, police and municipal workers, who formed a human chain, were able to rescue a number of other valued pieces, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and a tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th-century French king.

A worldwide campaign is underway to restore the cathedral to its former glory, but the restoration will be long and difficult.

An international team of hundreds of architectural specialists, craftsmen and construction engineers will undertake the massive project that could take up to five years to complete.

After all that the cathedral has endured for eight centuries, Notre Dame’s spiritual and physical foundation should be strong enough to withstand this latest challenge, assuring that more chapters of its rich history are yet to be written.

By Jim Zbick | tneditor@tnonline.com

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