Phillipian Commentary: Rebuilding History

I love going to church.[b][c][d][e] I only go while visiting my relatives in the South every Thanksgiving, but I treasure every moment I spend nestled inside the hallowed walls. But God isn’t the reason I go to church (sorry, Granddad). I go because I love seeing all my family and friends, shaking the priest’s hand as I step through the door, settling into a pew, and admiring the towering stained-glass windows. I love feeling the weight of the institution, the idea that I am part of something bigger, something that transcends me, my family, and even my tiny church.

On Monday night, the Cathedral of Notre Dame suffered tremendous fire damage. Its famed spire and much of its roof collapsed, much to the horror of thousands of onlookers. I believe we must take a minute to grieve and to acknowledge the history that was lost forever; however, we must also look to the future, to solutions of reconstruction and preservation.

The construction of Notre-Dame began in 1163, nearly 400 years before the Protestant reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is home to some of the most important relics in religious history, such as a piece of the crown of thorns that was said to be worn by Jesus during the crucifixion and a nail and piece of wood said to be part of the original cross[f]. Additionally, artifacts from the patron saints of Paris, Saint Genevieve, and Saint Denis, were contained in the spire that collapsed Monday night. Notre-Dame is kilometer zero, where all distance in France is measured from.[g] The cathedral is a symbol of not only Christianity—Christianity that predates modern ideas of Protestantism and Catholicism—but also of the city of Paris, and France as a whole.

Even from a secular standpoint, Notre-Dame is an incredible monument of engineering. The Gothic cathedral is one of the most important architectural monuments in the world because of its columns and buttresses, which were constructed to reach higher heights than any cathedral ever before. This model of building was revolutionary, and paved the way for countless other masterpieces.[h]

Additionally, Notre-Dame has been a cornerstone of art history for centuries. Gothic architecture aside, authors[i] Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust and artist Henri Matisse are only some of many who have drawn inspiration from the cathedral’s imposing spire and towering columns.

It feels wrong to say I am grieving for a cathedral I have never been to and for a faith I do not believe in (I’m Episcopalian, not Catholic). However, Notre-Dame is a testament to religion, French national identity, and art history that spans a millenium. It is only natural that this iconic structure would elicit such a strong response from people across the world. The monument has grown with France, surviving both ransacking during the French Revolution and Nazi occupation during World War II. Seeing such a symbol of endurance of western civilization go up in flames is universally tragic. Luckily, there is a solution.

Even though it is easy to think of it this way, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is not a fossil that was finished 850 years ago and left alone. We have added to and repaired it for centuries, and that is what we must do again. During the French Revolution, the cathedral was pillaged by those resenting the monarchy and the Catholic fate. These pillagers beheaded every statue of a king in the cathedral (ironically, these kings were not French monarchs, they were kings of the ancient kingdom of Judah). It was not until years later, after advocacy from authors such as Victor Hugo, who wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, that these kings were restored to their former glory.

At least 700 million euros have already been pledged to the restoration and preservation of this cultural landmark.[j] It is important to take a second to mourn what has been lost, such as a roof made from trees over 800 years old. But, with help from these donations and hard work from a dedicated team of historians, artists, and adoring public, I know we can move past our grief and reconstruct this monument—an enduring symbol of not only Christianity, but also of civilization.

When thinking about the historical weight of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it is hard not to feel the weight of Andover’s past. We are so privileged to attend a school that has been around for only two years less than the United States of America. There is something magical about seeing generations of initials carved into the desks in Pearson Hall, feeling the indents in the staircases of Paresky Commons, and stepping into my dorm, Stowe House, where Harriet Beecher Stowe once lived. But like Notre-Dame, all of these buildings have been renovated from their original states into places that simultaneously are safe for daily visitors while also maintaining meaningful history. While we mourn Notre-Dame, let us also show gratitude for the history we take part in every day.

However, it is naive to say that we all must cherish the weight of history—because in the case of both Notre-Dame and Andover, the majority of this history includes bigotry and discrimination against countless peoples. I cannot tell someone who is not as privileged as I am to indulge in spaces that were, and are, actively unwelcoming to them.

Luckily, both Andover and Notre-Dame are not fixed relics. As we rebuild Notre-Dame, I believe we should equally consider the gravity of this monument and what was lost, while also contemplating what we will add to it during its reparation. As for Andover, as we constantly remodel we need to acknowledge the importance of many historically-significant spaces, while also striving to add our own modern touches—ones that emphasize equity and inclusion—to the school.[k][l]