‘It is truly a loss for the ages’
As the world watched in horror at the sight of fire tearing through the medieval and iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, many from this province were also devastated by the news.
“Oh my God, five days ago (we were there),” Susan O’Brien of St. John’s posted on her Facebook page. “Oh my God, a beautiful building (burned) in holy week.”
She and her husband, Chris O’Brien, were vacationing in Paris and made sure they visited the renowned cathedral, which sees an estimated 13 million visitors each year.
“What a shame for such a beautiful historical church!” Chris O’Brien wrote on his Facebook page, which included many photos of the 850-year-old Gothic structure.
Many had a close connection to the cathedral.
Raylene Manning-Puddister of Torbay lost her son, Tyller Pittman, in December 2012, and on Christmas Day that year a family friend arranged to have a candle lit in Tyller’s name at the cathedral and his name was read aloud during mass.
“It was such an honour and made me so happy,” Manning-Puddister said, her voice quivering with emotion. “It devastated me to see it on fire.”
There was another link Newfoundland has to the cathedral.
The cathedral has a memorial tablet to honour soldiers from the British Empire who lost their lives in France during the First World War, including those from Newfoundland.
Larry Dohey, director of programming and public engagement at The Rooms, became aware of the tablet at Notre Dame referencing Newfoundland while he was researching Beaumont Hamel and the trail of the Caribou.
In May 2017, he made the trip to Paris.
“I was determined to find this memorial tablet,” Dohey said.
“Members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment would have visited the cathedral between 1914 and 1919, as the battleground where they were fighting was only about an hour and a half from Paris.”
Dohey said that at the end of the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission erected a series of memorial tablets in French and Belgian cathedrals to commemorate those from the British Empire who died during the war. The tablets were erected in towns in which British Army or Empire troops had been quartered.
The design of the commission’s tablet brought together the British Royal Coat of Arms with those of India and the imperial dominions: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Newfoundland. The tablet's inscription, written by Rudyard Kipling, referred to the “million dead” of the Empire.
The tablet was unveiled in Notre-Dame Cathedral on July 7, 1924, by the Prince of Wales.
It’s unknown whether the tablet survived the fire.
The Gothic structure had several treasured artworks inside its walls, including paintings, sculptures and valuable relics. While much of it was destroyed, some has been salvaged, including stained-glassed windows and the master organ, according to recent reports.
Acclaimed Newfoundland sculptor Morgan MacDonald visited the cathedral in 2009 while working at Beaumont-Hamel. He said it’s overwhelming to think of the historical pieces destroyed by the blaze.
“It is truly a loss for the ages. As I am reading, I understand that the entire wooden vaulting and structure of the roof is lost, which was constructed of old-growth forest,” said MacDonald, whose work includes “The Homecoming” at Bannerman Park, “The Rower” at Quidi Vidi Lake, “A Time” on George Street, the Elliston sealers sculpture, “Shawnadithit Imagined: Beothuk” and “The Unknown Beothuk.”
“These beams were from trees that just don’t grow to this size anymore, and looking at old photos of the interior I just don't see any way of recovering the lost character of this part of the church. This is a craft that I would be surprised even exists anymore.
“I am simply aghast at the whole event as much as anyone else could be in the world.”