Impact of Notre Dame Cathedral fire felt in East Tennessee

By Dan McWilliams

The fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on April 15 had reverberations around the Christian world, and some of them touched the Diocese of Knoxville.

Bishop Richard F. Stika held a press conference the day after the fire and fielded several questions from local media.

“I think I visited the cathedral in 2000 and just remember the awe and reverence I felt for it,” the bishop said. “This church was started in the 12th century. I saw a number yesterday — every day between 30,000 and 60,000 people would visit the cathedral. It was very sad, and I was very hopeful that they would be able to put out the fire.

“It’s a symbol not only of the Catholic Church but of France itself. You think of the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It looks like they will be able to rebuild.”

The fire came at the start of Holy Week.

“It survived all the wars over the centuries,” the bishop said. “Hopefully our prayers will be answered that they’ll be able to rebuild.”

News of the fire hurt people locally in East Tennessee as well as in Paris.

Flames and smoke billow from the Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire broke out April 15, 2019.  (CNS)

“From ashes things rise — it’s like the Phoenix,” the bishop said. “Europe has had a long history of wars, battles, and natural disasters. I think just to have hope that we can rebuild. It took 400 years to finish the cathedral; maybe we could a little bit quicker. Just be hopeful. Hope is that which allows us to transcend challenges and disasters.”

The Diocese of Knoxville built its own new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, dedicating it in March 2018, with fire safety and architectural beauty in mind.

“It’s amazing as I was watching the fire yesterday, I was thinking about all the things I wondered about that actually make a lot of sense,” Bishop Stika said. “In our cathedral, the iron structure, the frame — everything is coated with fire retardant; the materials in the walls, the outside brick, the roof, the sprinkler system — everything is coordinated.

“But this is 800 years later from when they built Notre Dame. You can see the reason for all these different fire-safety mechanisms. Progress has been made over the centuries.”

The priceless art and artifacts at Notre Dame were largely saved from the fire.

“Some of it probably was destroyed, in terms of maybe the woodwork and such, but from what I’ve read there was actually a line of people (saving) some of the relics — they have a relic of the crown that Jesus wore during his crucifixion — and it was person passing to person passing to person, risking their lives to do that,” Bishop Stika said. “I’m hopeful that the things that are irreplaceable in terms of the art have been saved. The Church has always believed that it’s the possessor of antiquities. So often if you have a private collection, no one ever sees it. The Vatican Museum, you pay a low cost and you can see them all day, this artwork, and also with Notre Dame, you just go into church and I remember with awe you can see the beauty.

“From what I heard, they were able to save a lot of the relics and some of the artwork. Some of it had already been removed because they were just in the beginning of a process of doing some much-needed repairs. Maybe that actually caused the fire — they don’t really know. It might have been an electrical thing.”

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is seen as “something much more than the cathedral of Paris” by the French, the bishop said.

“They see it in some ways as France itself. It’s their symbol. For 800 years they saw that spire existing in the skyline, and now it’s gone. I think it really must be devastating in so many ways. For us, what happened at 9/11, the symbols of the World Trade Center. Just think of the Statue of Liberty disappearing or the Capitol or the Eiffel Tower. For them it’s a tragedy, but they’ll live. They’ll move on.”

East Tennessee Catholics can assist in the rebuilding of Notre Dame, the bishop said.

“I’m going to put something on our website for anybody in the Knoxville area who would like to make a donation to assist the people of France,” he said. “It might not be a whole lot of money, but maybe it might be significant, who knows?

“If somebody just wants to say, hey, we’re your neighbors, even though we live across the ocean, we know of the importance of the French people to the beginnings of the United States. The gift of the Statue of Liberty, how much that is treasured here in the United States. So we’re going to put something on our website, if somebody wants to make a contribution. In the next day or so I’m going to be sending a letter to the archbishop of Paris just expressing solidarity.”

The diocese experienced its own cathedral fire when the original Sacred Heart Cathedral had an incident in 2006.

“It did more smoke damage, and the cathedral was actually closed for about a year,” Bishop Stika said.

The bishop thought it was significant what was saved in the Notre Dame fire. “I always used to hear a story about what happens if your house caught fire, what would you risk your life to save. Most people would say family members or animals. But if there were no animals or family members, what would you take out with you? In France it was the relics and it was the artwork. For the Catholic Church the most sacred thing is the Eucharist, what we call the body and blood of Jesus Christ. A priest ran into the cathedral to the tabernacle to take that which looks like bread — for us it’s the body of Christ — he risked his life to save that. It just shows for him, and hopefully for all Catholics, that the Eucharist is so sacred.

“How grateful I think all of us should always be to firefighters,” the bishop added.

“Remember the stories of 9/11, when everybody else was running out of those buildings, it was the firefighters and other folks running into the buildings to save lives,” he said. “I think this is also a lesson for all of us scattered throughout the world and here in Knoxville, how grateful we should always be to first responders. They risk their lives so that people can live or sometimes so that people can save treasures.”

Bishop Stika has had experience with church fires dating back to his St. Louis days.

“Years ago in St. Louis, we had a fire in a magnificent, beautiful church, St. Anthony of Padua. It was struck by lightning, a very, very old church. I can remember being in the church in a raincoat and a fire helmet with Archbishop [Justin] Rigali, who was the archbishop at the time; now he’s Cardinal Rigali living here.

“I heard the stories of the firefighters who knew the Church of St. Anthony was so special to St. Louis that they went out of their way to save the stained-glass windows and as much as they could. And three years later, because of insurance, we were able to rebuild the church and fix the damage. We honored the firefighters and the law enforcement and other folks. We should always be grateful for the people who assist us.”

After the press conference, the bishop addressed the issue of older churches in the Diocese of Knoxville, such as Holy Ghost and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga. Those churches have wooden rafter beams as did Notre Dame.

Bishop Stika speaks to Jean and Peter Chiaro of St. Therese Parish in Clinton following the Chrism Mass on April 16 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Chiaros had just visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris two days before the Chrism Mass and the day before Notre Dame was severely damaged by fire.

“The buildings all get inspected,” Bishop Stika said. “Every couple of years, Catholic Mutual, they check out our buildings. Some of the old structures, the rafters are wood, whereas in the new cathedral they’re steel. And they’re flame retardant and stuff. That’s why we inspect everything that we have to inspect. But you know if there’s a lightning strike, that’s why we have lightning rods, but I knew two beautiful churches in St. Louis, the lightning rods were actually struck and they started a spark and a fire, so some of that you just leave up to God to protect it.”

The fire at Notre Dame has impacted Emily Booker, Diocese of Knoxville communications specialist.

“I was planning on seeing Notre Dame Cathedral on a trip to France with my family later this year,” she said. “I think Notre Dame holds a larger-than-life significance in our collective memory — a pinnacle of medieval architecture and beauty, a symbol of France’s long and sometimes violent history, a literary inspiration.

“But more than that, it is a cathedral where millions of faithful have worshiped God for hundreds of years. I’m disappointed I won’t be able to see it in its full glory.”

Peter and Jean Chiaro of St. Therese Parish in Clinton had just visited Notre Dame on Palm Sunday, the day before the fire.

“We went there for 10:30 Mass on Sunday, and it was us and many, many thousands of people,” Mr. Chiaro said. “We actually were in the procession to go into the cathedral. One of the unique things about it was it was all done in French. They sang the Passion, which was beautiful. In light of what happened, thank God it didn’t happen while Mass was going on, because it would have been catastrophic.” Mrs. Cooper said, “We were really shocked when we heard about it.

“It’s sad,” she added. “It’s a sad thing to happen. I’ve been to Paris four times, and I’ve always gone to Notre Dame every time I’ve gone there.”

Click here to donate to fire relief in Paris

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