It’s Time to Learn From Notre Dame de Paris Fire

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It is Monday and I have watched with profound sadness the destruction by fire of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral.  

The cathedral was not just a symbol of Catholicism, but a symbol of the endurance of the people of France and Europe. It was a beacon of faith, hope, charity and spirituality. 

It survived revolutions, wars and desecrations over the centuries and continued to stand as a testament to France’s history and its people. Although many of the sacred icons and relics of the Catholic faith and irreplaceable works of art were saved, the craftmanship of artisans of past generations was lost.  

I did have the good fortune of visiting Notre Dame many years ago, and it took my breath away. The vastness and grandeur of the cathedral left me feeling small and insignificant while at the same time feeling a significant part of a greater world.  

Although Catholics worldwide will be lamenting this horrific loss, globally people of all faiths will be mourning with Parisians for the loss and damage to this iconic structure, its art, workmanship and the history it represented.  

If the walls and towers still have stability, the president of France has already committed to the restoration of Notre Dame, but it will take decades and billions of dollars to achieve that goal, and to that end wealthy Francophones and others have already pledged a billion Euros.

Europe is home to a multitude of centuries-old churches, cathedrals and basilicas that attest to its history, artists and artisans. Europeans seem to understand the value of preserving their historic buildings and appreciate the time it takes to construct monuments for future generations. 

A few years ago, we visited the Sagrada Familia, a yet-to-be completed Roman Catholic cathedral in Barcelona. Its construction, started in 1882, was interrupted by wars and recessions, and construction continues to this day. 

Its design was the work of architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), whose work on the building is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its excessively large wooden doors took an artist seven years to carve and it is filled with artistic and architectural wonders.  

The main nave in the building was opened, consecrated by Pope Benedict XVl in 2010 and proclaimed a minor basilica. Aside from the main nave, currently being used as a place of worship, it also serves as a tourist attraction.

It will be there centuries from now and will be a testament to generations of Spaniards that have laboured to create it.      

Unless one has travelled Europe, I think it is hard for North Americans to envision or imagine this architecture. The closest thing we have in Saskatoon to this type of construction is a few of our classic churches, yet we seem to have no collective interest in preserving them.  

Unlike Europe with buildings that are several centuries old, Third Avenue United Church is 114 years young. But the building needed repair, and the shrinking congregation could not afford to maintain it, so it was sold.  

But the building does represent our city’s history and its acoustics are so outstanding that it was being used as a performance venue while still operating as a place of worship. It does have some municipal heritage protection, but last I heard there was little planned for its future use.  

We have a few other grand structures that speak to our history and pay tribute to the workmanship of artisans of yesteryear. Knox United Church comes to mind, as does St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, Grace Westminster United Church, St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Mary’s. 

As well, Holy Trinity Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Cathedral, with a design structure traditional to the orthodox faith, has in its interior an outstanding display of Byzantine art and wood carving.    

The escalating maintenance and operating costs of all these churches are dependent on the donations of parishioners. It seems not that long ago that Sunday was a day of rest, a time to worship in the church of your choice and to spend with family. 

However, our society has changed, and every faith has seen a decline in weekly attendance and membership. The decline in congregants in any faith means fewer people contribute to the long-term viability of the church, as was the case of Third Avenue United Church. What will happen to these testaments to our city’s history?

It is not just churches that speak to our heritage, but the castle schools, several early 20th century commercial buildings and many character homes. The character homes enjoy the interest of individuals, but there is no plan to protect these public structures from the wrecking ball when they are no longer used for their original intent. 

We are such a young city and have not yet developed an appreciation of what comparatively little built heritage we have. As a community, if given the choice between a shiny new nickel or a gemstone that needs polishing, we opt for the nickel every time.  

Unlike European societies, we do not build lasting architectural works of art, but utilitarian boxes to serve a single purpose for a short period of time. Our expectation of a building’s lifespan is less than 50 years, and except for the Bessborough and our university campus buildings, I can’t think of many structures that would raise the ire of the public masses if they were to be destroyed.  

There is a small cadre of heritage buffs in our city, but their passion to save everything blinds them to reason and puts the public off. 

They seldom present a realistic workable plan as to how to preserve and re-purpose a piece of our built heritage, so it might be sustainable into the future. Nor is there any public interest in investing resources in preservation projects.  

However, we have been paying the city $2 a month for a “temporary” flood protection tax for the last 15 years or more, funds that eventually find their  way to the black hole called city hall.

How about a $2 per month heritage tax to create a reserve to help with the maintenance and re-purposing of our built heritage when the need arises? Mind you, we would have to find a way to keep council’s sticky fingers out of the pot.    

When the time comes, there will not be a multitude of people crying and praying for a miracle or a wealthy donor to step up to rescue our heritage. But there may be a long line of nouveau riche pulling out their cheque books to buy a penthouse suite in a condo complex bearing a kitschy name and overlooking the river.

We may live to regret consigning our heritage to photos in the local history room at the library.

ehnatyshyn@gmail.com