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OP ED: Notre Dame rebuild must look to the future

The Winnipeg Free Press by Emilie St-Hilaire 26 April 2019

What can Paris learn from Saint Boniface, Man.? To rebuild strategically.

Not long after the calls to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral came the calls not to. The immediate response, much from France’s wealthiest citizens pledging hundreds of millions of euros before the smoke cleared in the charred cathedral, struck the wrong chord with many people, as it highlighted the power of the wealthy.

The ease and speed with which Bernard Arnault and other French millionaires made donations totalling over 600 million euros was criticized amid a crisis of social inequalities in France. An estimated US$1 billion has now been raised for the restoration effort, and French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to have the work done in just five years, in time for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Critics have called this timeline unrealistic, and many have also pointed out the disparity of the situation when compared to restoration efforts for cultural institutions elsewhere in the world. For example, even six months after a devastating fire at Brazil’s National Museum, only 15 million euros have been raised for its reconstruction.

Of course, the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral is an iconic structure with a significant history, and its partial destruction by fire touched the lives of millions of people around the world. As news of the tragedy spread, countless personal photos of visits to the Paris landmark were shared online. It’s a moment that won’t soon be forgotten. To try to restore this landmark to its previous state, however, feels like an effort to somehow erase this event.

For some residents of Winnipeg, the sight of the Notre Dame fire on April 15 likely brought back memories of July 22, 1968, when the Saint Boniface Cathedral was similarly ablaze. The resulting damage at the iconic basilica was extensive, but like its Parisian counterpart, much of its stone facade remained intact.

Through the vision of local architect Étienne Gaboury, the Saint Boniface Cathedral was rebuilt to feature a new enclosed structure behind the old facade, which today sits just across the river from the Canadian Human Rights Museum. Gaboury intended for the new church to rise from the ruins of the old cathedral, an approach to blending old and new that is also seen at Coventry Cathedral in England. The ruins of their medieval church, bombed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, were left as a solemn reminder of the devastation of war.

What has stood in the heart of Saint Boniface since 1972 is a testament to the past that also looks ahead. Even today, plans are ongoing to further establish the cathedral as a gathering place for people from all walks of life.

Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but let’s not pretend there aren’t some aspects of the Catholic Church that should be left behind. Rebuild as a testament to the future. Rebuild sustainably, and with consideration for the individual lives and personal struggles of the millions of people who will visit the site for decades, if not centuries, to come. Otherwise, when Notre Dame reopens it will be amid controversy and shame.

To me, the Saint Boniface Cathedral feels like an open wound standing guard over the gravestones of some of the historic figures, including Louis Riel, who shaped the province of Manitoba. As the “mother church” of Western Canada, it has witnessed history since its first incarnation in 1818. It is a site that serves a broad community today as a gathering place and site for contemplation. As Canadians shape an era of Truth and Reconciliation, living monuments such as the Saint Boniface Cathedral have the opportunity to grow in response to changing times.

For the considerably older Notre Dame, the opportunity to reflect on the complexities of its history are rich, but its legacy will speak to the future. It is difficult to conceive of life 850 years from now, but will visitors in 2869 really care how quickly Macron completed the restoration?

Maybe it’s silly to worry about what happens in the 29th century, though, with so much uncertainty enveloping the 21st. So, as the costly reconstruction and architectural competition get underway, perhaps a better question is this: for whom will Notre Dame be rebuilt?

Emilie St-Hilaire is an interdisciplinary artist currently pursuing doctoral studies in the Humanities at Concordia University.