RI community prays for Paris as historic cathedral burns


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of miles away, Rhode Islanders are praying for Paris as the Notre Dame Cathedral was destroyed by fire.

The fire collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers on Monday. French officials say the entire wooden frame will most likely come down as well.

On Monday evening, religious leaders and community members gathered for a scheduled Chrism mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, grieving the loss of the iconic cathedral on the other side of the Atlantic. 

“As we gather in our cathedral we will be thinking about the loss of their cathedral and what that means for them,” Bishop Thomas Tobin said. “It’s a tragic loss for the people of France and Paris, and I think for the whole Catholic world.”

Tobin said the destruction of the 800-year-old cathedral is heartbreaking to see, particularly at the start of Holy Week. He hopes some of the artwork from the original cathedral can be saved so the people of Paris can rebuild, a sentiment shared by Joan Branham, the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Providence College.

Branham teaches art history at the school, focusing on medieval cultures and theories of sacred space. A catastrophic fire at Notre Dame was something she hadn’t believed possible when she visited the cathedral in February.

“I felt like I was already going into mourning,” she said, explaining her initial reaction to the pictures and headlines emerging from France on Monday afternoon. 

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral’s architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.

Notre Dame holds a special place Branham’s heart and her curriculum. She’s unsure how she’ll teach the topic next semester. 

“It’s so prominent,” she said. “Everyone sees Notre Dame. It is probably the most recognizable monument there, and visited every day, and still functioning as a liturgical space every day.”

Bob Burke, the proprietor of French bistro Pot Au Feu in downtown Providence, said Notre Dame is the heart of Paris.

“This is a heart attack that’s taking place right now,” he said of the fire.   Governor Gina Raimondo expressed her condolences, posting to Twitter that her, “thoughts are with the people of Paris and officials working to preserve all its art and history.”

The cause of the fire is unknown at this time, but French media outlets are reporting it may be linked to a renovation project on the church’s spire.

Burke is confident the cathedral will rise again.

“Notre Dame is not going to go away because of a fire,” Burke said. “It’s too important a building. It’s too great a place for us to ever believe that it will cease to exist.”

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