In Paris this week, the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire and brought sections of it crashing down onto the inside of this historic building. I had the opportunity to visit this amazing historical monument on my visit to this beautiful city years ago. It was amazing to wander into the depths of this grand cathedral to see all the statues, works of art, stained glass windows and to listen to the impressive organ during an evening mass. I always find that in visiting these old cathedrals, history provides a glimpse back in time. Notre Dame Cathedral is the site of many historic events and it involves French history dating back to when its construction was completed in the year 1260. Kings, queens, noble people, the rich and wealthy and the most famous people of French society came here as well as the people of the city and pilgrims from all over Europe for hundreds of years. A lot of precious art work was housed in the cathedral.
It was sad to see the destruction of such a historic monument and to see fires raging from a building that represented so much history for so many people over so many centuries.
On the James Bay coast, we have a sense of what it is like to lose our place of worship or a significant building that represents our past. Starting in the late 1900s, large permanent buildings were built in the communities along the James Bay coast. Before that there were smaller structures that were constructed poorly and did not last very long.
In Attawapiskat, our community church was built in the 1930s and our parents and grandparents had many stories of the how their parents, grandparents and distant relatives had helped in its construction. Logs and building material were gathered from the nearby land by hand using manual labour. All the building material was brought to the community where it was collected, stored, sawn, milled and shaped into the timbers for the structure. The building became the largest structure for the community and stood overlooking the Attawapiskat River.
My dad Marius often worked for the church to conduct regular maintenance and any small renovations that had to be carried out. He told us stories of how he climbed up the sides of the steep metal roofing to paint sections of the roof, and he went up to the steeple roof to fix or maintain the highest sections. As young boys helping our dad and older brothers, my younger siblings and I accompanied him on some of these projects and we had a glimpse of the inside structure of the high ceiling that made up the old church. Deep inside the roof we could see the rough hewn lumber that still showed sections of uncleared bark and the axe marks and hand sawn ends of the long beams of heavy pine that held up the roof.
Whenever I glimpsed at those beams, all I could imagine were all the old people from that era that would have climbed up without modern equipment or tools to put together this large structure. It was amazing that they felt a need to construct such a huge building in the middle of nowhere in our northern wilderness.
On the main floor of the old church, there is a lot of history and memories of so many events that occurred in our lives. As a boy, I can remember visiting this place with my family in our best clothes every Sunday morning. My parents encouraged me to help as an altar boy with my cousins. When I got older, I operated the camera to film the mass for community TV. We all took part in joyful celebrations of weddings, baptisms, school graduations, Christmas events and festive holidays. We also gathered to mourn the loss of our loved ones at funerals and showed up with excitement for commemorative events during the year.
I can understand what it might feel like if we lost our church in Attawapiskat. I am not a terribly religious person. I may not attend church but I do understand what a community historic building means to people. These special structures are not just places of worship for followers of a certain faith, they are also historic monuments that mark the collective history of a community. Even though I believe that there was so much darkness brought to us by the European religions, that does not diminish my appreciation for such a huge construction project that has long been part of Attawapiskat.
This is why I felt so bad in seeing the burning of such a majestic building as the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, ‘Our Lady of Paris’. The building has been damaged but thankfully all is not lost and I am sure that the collective will of so many people who have so much love for this building will be capable of bringing it back to its glory. That has more to do with the awareness of history and appreciation for art and architecture than any realization of religious significance and I am sure that most Parisians feel the same way.