Local priests reflect on own experiences with church fires in wake of Notre Dame

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The interior of the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, 6401 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Oct. 10, 2015 following an Oct. 7 fire that caused three-quarters of the roof to collapse. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When he saw the flames leaping from the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris April 15, Monsignor Daniel Mayall was transported back to the early morning of Feb. 4, 2009.

That was the morning when the attic and ceiling of Holy Name Cathedral caught fire.

“As soon as I saw the flames on TV, that’s where I was, because I saw the flames at Holy Name,” said Mayall, who was pastor of the cathedral at the time.

Seeing the destruction at Notre Dame was heartbreaking, Mayall said.

“When a church is destroyed and is not there anymore, we lose a picture of heaven,” he said. “Is heaven destroyed? Of course not. But the closest image we have made is gone.”

That was the case at Holy Name, at least for a time. There, firefighters were able to save the structure. After extensive repairs, the cathedral reopened six months later. In Mayall’s estimation, it’s “prettier than ever.”

But Mayall, now senior priest at St. Joseph Parish in Wilmette, said it’s too easy to say that everything that was destroyed will be remade, newer and better.

“It’s too cheap to say that’s why God meant it to happen,” he said.

Rather, those who loved Notre Dame must take the time to feel the loss before it can be rebuilt.

“Everything, including our lives, goes away eventually,” he said. “The promise of eternity is still ours.”

Cardinal Cupich released a statement on the day of the fire in support of the French people.

“Please join me in praying for the people of Paris, the parishioners of Notre Dame, the Catholics of the city, their archbishop, and all French people, as we watch this terrible tragedy unfold. We pray especially for the safety of first responders, those visiting the cathedral, renovation workers, and the staff of the cathedral. Notre Dame for centuries has been a symbol of the faith and fortitude of the people of France,” the statement read. “In this moment of sorrow, we stand arm in arm with the French people, whose church helped to establish our own diocese, knowing that just as our city once rose from ashes, Paris’ great cathedral will again reach for the heavens.”

The cardinal encouarged churches throughout the archdiocese to ring their bells at 10:50 a.m. April 17, the time the fire broke out in Notre Dame Cathedral, in solidarity with dioceses of France, particularly with the Archdiocese of Paris.

Officials in France are promising that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, but that process will take a long time.

Canon Matthew Talarico, of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, counseled patience as well.

The Shrine of Christ the King, 6415 S. Woodlawn Ave., was in the process of being restored when a fire started near its roof on Oct. 7, 2015. The church, designed and built by architect Henry Schlacks in 1923, was originally dedicated as St. Clara Church, and for decades was also the National Shrine of St. Therèse of Lisieux. As the neighborhood changed, it was renamed St. Gelasius Parish.

In the 1970s, the church suffered a devastating fire and was never fully repaired. After the parish closed, Cardinal Francis George gave the church and rectory into the keeping of the institute, which was restoring the church when the 2015 fire occurred.

“What’s not immediately apparent is how long it takes to assess the totality of the damage,” Talarico said. “It takes a long time to know where to even begin the process of rebuilding. And the early part of it — the studies and the planning that have to take place — are not visible. There is a lot of work at the beginning that is not readily apparent.”

The institute, which is relying on an ongoing fundraising campaign to pay for the restoration, has replaced the roof structure and done extensive masonry work, he said, installing more than 24,000 new bricks. Next, the window frames must be replaced and new, protective glass must be installed. Meanwhile, engineers are drawing up plans for new mechanical systems that could be installed later this year, if the money is available.

Talarico said the images of the burning Notre Dame hit home for him not only because of the fire at the Shrine of Christ the King, but because of his own experiences.

“I was at Notre Dame eight or nine times as a pilgrim,” he said. “And many of the men in our institute are from France, and my heart goes out to them. The history of France was founded on the Catholic Church — France is called the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church.”

Going forward, he said, French church and civil authorities must work to unite their efforts to rebuild.

“Everyone has to be on the same page,” he said.


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