How Notre Dame’s survival adds to its legacy

After the fire that almost claimed Notre Dame, how will the efforts to rebuild affect the landmark's symbolic and religious significance?
notre dame fire

Last week’s fire at Notre Dame and plans to rebuild could reshape the cathedral’s cultural significance, says historian Edward Berenson.

The damage to the church, which dates back to the 12th century, strikes at the core of French identity, says Berenson, who spent a few months in France in the 1970s before pursuing his PhD in French history back in the US. He is now a professor of history at New York University who also serves on the faculty of its Institute of French Studies.

Aside from the building’s significance for the Catholic Church, Berenson adds, the cathedral has also been the site of official French ceremonies marking everything from the marriage of King Francis II and Mary Queen of Scots to the country’s liberation from the Nazis in World War II.

“Notre Dame plus the Sorbonne established Paris as one of the great centers of Catholic learning and Catholic theology,” says Berenson, a senior fellow at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. “But later on, it got associated with a budding France. So that established the history of Notre Dame as representing France as a kingdom, a nation, a place that symbolized your homeland.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral within five years, and donors already have directed more than a billion dollars toward that effort.

As the country turns its attention to the process, Berenson, who has written books about the French Republic, the French empire, and one of its most famous gifts to the United States—the Statue of Liberty— reflects on the cathedral’s meaning, in France and around the world.

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