Cathedral in flames Notre Dame fire parallels St. Boniface blaze more than 50 years ago

Sometimes memories collide across decades.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/04/2019 (1268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sometimes memories collide across decades.

The comparisons between the fires Monday at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the 1968 blaze in St. Boniface were inescapable to at least one generation.

As the world watched in horror online or on TV, the flames obliterated the French icon, its centuries of standing witness to history erased by fire. In Winnipeg, at least one man who witnessed the St. Boniface Cathedral fire more than 50 years ago found himself struck by memories.

The fire in St. Boniface started near the top of the building, moved to the roof and funnelled into deadly spirals that blew off the bell towers. The blaze started during renovations. Firefighters found it impossible to scale stone walls to attack the flames so high up.

St. Boniface Cathedral fire. Photo by Henry Kalen

On July 22, 1968, Philippe Mailhot stood in the cemetery in St. Boniface and watched the flames. He was 13.

On Monday, Mailhot, now semi-retired, was watching similar images a half-world away in Paris on CNN.

Phil Mailhot, former director of the St. Boniface Museum, poses in front of the St. Boniface Cathedral ruins in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)
Mailhot devoted his life to francophone heritage in Manitoba. A former director of the St. Boniface Museum who is still closely involved in charities and boards, he was very much aware Monday of the eerie similarities between the fires.

“It’s very evocative of the St. Boniface Cathedral fire. Obviously, not on the same scale in terms of its historical significance and the like, but the circumstances, even if people are not practicing or don’t go to church, you get a building that is iconic to the city,” Mailhot said.

“St. Boniface used to call itself the ‘Cathedral City.’ And Notre Dame to Paris, people all over the world, it was an image. You saw the facade of that church, or even the rear of it from the river, and you immediately knew what you were looking at.”

By mid-afternoon in Winnipeg, it was pretty clear Notre Dame — constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, and one of the world’s most famous monuments — would be left a ruin, only its stone walls still standing.

That realization brought back another moment.

“What’s also hitting me now is they were saying the facade, the bell towers and so on, the front, that still seems to be okay. But now they’re starting to get little bits of flame there, too,” Mailhot said.

“What happened with the cathedral (in Winnipeg), I remember walking towards it, it was like a ball of flame working its way from the back, eating its way through the roof and finally getting to the bell towers,” he said. “What you had was a funnel effect going on… as the heat was going up through the bell towers, it was drawing the flames through there.”

An aerial view of the St. Boniface Cathedral fire on July 22, 1968. (Winnipeg Free Press Archives)

When the bell towers collapsed at the St. Boniface Cathedral, there was a moan from the crowd, Mailhot said. “Based on the video I just watched on CNN, that’s exactly what happened when the central spire collapsed.”

He said he was grateful to have seen Notre Dame in person.

“I had a chance to visit Paris once and visit the cathedral. It’s a massive stone building but, of course, inside the cathedral, it’s plaster, it’s wood, flammable material… Yes, very evocative, very tragic.”

What was left in Winnipeg was the building’s facade, the stone walls, the marble altar and the sacristy.

All those decades later, a new cathedral now stands, but the ruins also remain: they are an important cultural centre and still a tourist destination.

“Who knows, what happened to the cathedral here in St. Boniface will be an inspiration to them,” Mailhot said.

The St. Boniface Cathedral ruins as seen today, 50 years after the fire. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

 

Gallery: Notre Dame cathedral

PARIS – A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below.

The view from the organ loft at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2013, when the organ was refurbished for the cathedral’s 850th anniversary (Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files)
The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers.

A spokesman said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.

“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media.

The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths. Some 400 firefighters were battling the blaze well into the night.

A crown of thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ and which was bought by King Louis IX in 1239 is seen at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a file photo. (Remy de la Mauviniere / The Associated Press files)

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.

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns (Thibault Camus / The Associated Press)
Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral.

Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

The cathedral was immortalized in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” published in 1831, and has long been a subject of fascination in popular culture as well as the traditional art world.

-The Associated Press

Flames rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns. (Thibault Camus / The Associated Press)
Ash fell on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (Lori Hinant / The Associated Press)
A firefighter tackles the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns. (Michel Euler / The Associated Press)
People watch as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral (Thibault Camus / The Associated Press)
(Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Associated Press)
Firefighters tackle the blaze. (Michel Euler / The Associated Press)
(Francois Mori / The Associated Press)
(Thibault Camus / The Associated Press)
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral. (Thibault Camus / The Associated Press)
Nine new bronze bells are displayed in Notre Dame cathedral during a ceremony of blessing by Paris Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois in Paris in 2013 (Francois Mori / The Associated Press files)
The Notre Dame cathedral is illuminated during a light show called "Dame de Cœur" to celebrate the centenary of the First World War, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files)
Philippe Lefebvre plays the organ at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2013. (Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files)
The view from the organ loft at Notre Dame cathedral in 2018, when the organ was refurbished for the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. (Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files)
A chimera and a gargoyle watch over Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral in a file photo. Architect Viollet le Duc added the chimeras and gargoyles to the tower walls when repairing the damages caused by the French Revolution. The chimeras were purely decorative while the garoyles were built to serve as raingutters. (Remy De La Mauviniere / The Associated Press files)
Smoke fills the air as Notre Dame cathedral burns. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Associated Press)
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