With its construction started nearly a millenium ago, France's most famous cathedral has withstood invasions, wars, and revolution. Now weather and grime are its greatest enemies.
200 keys. That was the capacity a priest's belt needed to have in order to access all the stairwells, corridors, and rooms of Notre Dame de Paris. And so, it was not until a few years ago - when all the locks in the cathedral were standardized - that many of the resident priests of the archdiocese of Paris were able to fully inspect the cathedral for the first time in more than a century.
What they found was disheartening. The most public parts of the cathedral and its exterior had shown obvious states of decay, but closer inspection revealed stone walls held up by 100 year-old planks of wood, interior supports with rot, and nearly impassible stairwells. France's most beloved and visited church was just a few short years from serious, irreparable damage.
A Silent Victim of Abuse
Construction started on the cathedral dedicated to the Blessed Mother in 1163, and was completed within about a century. Its French Gothic building techniques - like most of the great cathedrals of the time - was designed to last a thousand years. And, like its stone sisters throughout Europe since the mid-1200s, it has witnessed a history of violence.
The invading Hugenots were the first to deface portions of its walls. Various fires throughout the 16th and 17th centuries weakened its mortar and beams, with hasty repair techniques causing almost more damage. Two world wars took their toll, and the French Revolution invited sacreligious revelers to break away large portions of its statuary - though mostly isolated to past monarchs' figures.
But it is a more subtle, almost invisible violence that is to blame for the current state of Notre Dame; weather and soot.
Over the centuries, wind and rain have weakened the exterior construction. Further, coal soot from the industrial revolution (and recently, more modern forms of pollutants) when mixed with this moisture, accelerated the process. This slow, chemical decomposition of the stones and ancient mortar did what no Hugenots or revolutionaries bothered to do - weakened the famous flying buttresses and towers to the point of near collapse.
A Hunchback's Blessing and Curse
Though the condition of the cathedral is dire today, it is not a new state of affairs. After the French Revolution, Notre Dame lay in disrepair, with the faithful no longer attending to her as they once lovingly had. Then in 1831, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The main figure in the novel, deformed Quasimodo, lived in the bell towers, with the cathedral taking on the role of another character. Hugo spoke of the “mutilations, amputations, dislocations of the joints” that could be found in the stones then. “Beside each wrinkle on the face of this old queen of our cathedrals,” he wrote, “you will find a scar.”
The beloved French writer's words stirred up the passions - if not the Faith - of the French people, and various campaigns throughout the latter half of the 19th century were undertaken to restore Notre Dame's "mutiliations" and "scars." However, the effort, for its good intentions, was only a short-term postitive step. In fact, it has been an ironic reality that the repairs caused more harm than good. Low-quality stone and even cement was used in these restoration efforts, since France at the time could not produce the quantities of high-grade material that the job required.
Now, 200 years later, this 19th century construction is crumbling, leaving the higher-quality Gothic work underneath behind, and even more exposed. During a recent visit, Time magazine's writers described what they saw:
Chunks of limestone lay on the ground, having fallen from the upper part of the chevet, or the eastern end of the Gothic church. One small piece had a clean slice down one side, showing how recently it had fallen. Two sections of a wall were missing, propped up with wood."
The famous gargoyles, carved as various devils and creatures, and placed on the outside of the cathedral to signify the outside sinfulness of the world (and serving as rain spouts) are jarring to see. These artistic figures, due to their cantilevered position, are disintegrating even more obviously from the elements. Many are completely destroyed, cleaved off the walls like icebergs, replaced simply with pipe and sometimes PVC material. The ones that remain are almost unrecognizable - more grotesque than their artisans could have imagined when they carved these demons - necrotic nubs of stone jutting out from the cathedral. "They are like ice cream in the sun, melting,” says Michel Picaud, head of the nonprofit Friends of Notre Dame de Paris.
Who is to pay for the repairs?
The question of Notre Dame's repairs has bedeviled the archdiocese. Under the strict secular laws of post-revolutionary France, the government owns the cathedral. The archdiocese is allowed to use it for free, in perpetuity.
Recently, the archdiocese asked the goverment to support the vital repairs on the property it owns. The government refused. It states that it already gives €2 million ($2.28 million) a year for this purpose, but this amount only covers basic upkeep. The repairs needed, including removing past restorative efforts, and replacing them with proper materials and techniques, will cost many times more that amount. And Notre Dame is crumbling more every day.
The Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris has agreed to help shoulder the burden. Michel Picaud, recently estimated the costs at a total of €100 million, noting that the work needs to be carried out within the next six to ten years. With funds not forthcoming from the goverment, and unlikely to come from the dwindling Catholic population of France, Picaud also set up a second non-profit organization in the United States last fall in order to reach its fundraising target. André Finot, a spokesman for Notre Dame cathedral believes the bulk of the money will need to come from the Americans, millions of whom know Notre Dame and who are less hesitant than the French about giving money to the church. “People don’t want to give money because of laïcité,” he says, referring to the strict secularism that infuses French law.
Admission Fees to the House of God
With these fundraising drives ongoing, further sources of revenue are being explored. Edouard de Lamaze, says churches that are in need of repair should charge an entrance fee. He is president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, which has the daunting mission to save France’s nearly 120,000 historic churches.
France must start charging for tourist visits of some religious buildings – notably the cathedrals as happens in Spain, for example, or the U.K. The cathedrals are places of worship but they are not only places of worship. They are also places of history. And it is right and proper that tourists’ entrance fees be used to maintain them."
Admission fees from the 13 million visitors each year would certainly help. But the idea of paying to enter a sacred place is anathema to most Catholics in France, and the opposition has been fierce from clergy and conservative lawmakers.
The Conference of French Bishops has rejected the idea of making visitors pay, saying it doesn’t want money to come between people and God. Nathalie Goutlet, a French senator, took to Twitter recently: "to make people pay to enter cathedrals is a violation of the 1905 law (separating Church from State) and a violation of equality before the law." Eric Ciotti, a Right-wing opposition MP, wrote: "Our cathedrals are sacred places, open to all and guardians of our identity! They must thus escape the commercialisation of our society!"
The pastors have not been silent, with Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, saying: "...more than ever we need places of silence, beauty (that are) free of charge, open to all."
A point of consideration to the contrary: One notes that realistically, the vast majority of the 13 million entering Notre Dame each year do not visit for prayer, but tourism. If you have visited a famous cathedral in Europe, you know that they resemble museums with talking, selfies, and pictures taken - in reality, they are not "places of silence" as Fr. Grosjean states. And those who do actually visit to pray - ostensibly Catholics - have a duty in any regard to support the financial well-being of the Church. Would it be wrong to require a small admission of €1-2 per person to the main cathedral, leaving a side chapel freely open for adoration?
Mr. Luis De la Serna, founder of Regina Pilgrimages, which organizes trips accompanied by Society of St. Pius X priests, has a wealth of experience visiting cathedrals and shrines throughout Europe and the Holy Land:
As fewer Catholics attend Mass, there is less income for the historical churches, thereby making it impossible to pay for all the necessary maintenance and repairs for these old buildings. So if French Catholics are not financially supporting their churches, how else can they be preserved? A small, reasonable alms per visitor, which is to be solely for the benefit of the church, would help ensure their preservation and enjoyment for years to come."
A Cathedral Reflecting its Church
The story of Notre Dame cathedral, as well as its many sister cathedrals throughout Europe, sadly mirrors the Catholic Church as a whole.
This grand building has stood resolute throughout past centuries' conflicts which shook it directly. And if damage was sustained, the faithful and the government stepped up to rebuild.
But Notre Dame's greatest test proves to be today's subtle erosion of its mortar and foundation, while her people watch in apathy.