SMETHPORT — Without exception, former and current residents of Smethport who have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral prior to last week’s devastating fire — less than a week before Easter — said their tours of the world-famous icon of Christianity, French Gothic architecture and the beauty of Paris were really incredible experiences.
The last church to be located on the site of Notre Dame had been in use from the fifth century to the eighth century and had been remodeled and enlarged, but was still too small to accommodate the area’s growing population, leading the bishop of Paris to build Notre Dame.
Historical records reveal that construction of Notre Dame began between March 24 and April 25, 1163, with the laying of the cornerstone. Construction of the Roman Catholic structure continued in four stages for almost 200 years, until 1345.
The original design was revised repeatedly. Throughout construction, there were some technological innovations in the building trades, some of which enabled the cathedrals to reach even greater heights. For instance, there was experimenting with flying buttresses, arched structures extending from the upper portions of the walls and helping to reinforce or support the walls. Before then, the entire weight of a roof pressed outward and down to the walls and supporting abutments.
Without the use of modern building equipment, the workers, concentrating on several sections at the same time, achieved an architectural miracle that is 420 feet long and 157 feet wide with a 300-foot spire. The two towers, the final parts to be constructed, are 226 feet tall.
The structure was built of heavy timber and was characterized with some wide open spaces. In fact, it’s estimated that the wooden roof was made from approximately 13,000 trees.
Readily noticeable in the interior are the three stained glass rose windows, located high up on the west, north and south walls. The west rose window, the first and smallest, dates back to about 1225.
Underneath the west window are 18 vertical windows.
The south window, comprised of 94 medallions grouped in four circles, show scenes in Christ’s life, helpful to many of the faithful learning about their faith in medieval times when most people were illiterate.
Figures, such as chimeras, animals sporting the heads of goats and bodies of lions, and gargoyles decorated the cathedral’s exterior. The gargoyles served a specific purpose, diverting water from the roof and eventually away from the structure’s foundation.
In addition to priceless works of art, Notre Dame housed some very rare Christian relics, such as the Crown of Thorns, that Christ wore at his crucifixion and is displayed occasionally, as well as one of the Holy Nails, a fragment of the True Cross and a tunic associated with St. Louis.
Among the former and current residents of Smethport who visited Notre Dame, was Kathy Kerr Wiersma, who taught at the Smethport Elementary School from 1969-72 and 1973-78. She now resides in New York state.
“To see just how huge the cathedral is was overwhelming. It’s so beautiful.” said Wiersma, who visited with a group during a Christmas holiday. She also noted that unlike American Catholic churches where kneelers and pews are standard, Notre Dame had chairs.
Speaking of the dedication of the builders, Wiersma explained, “Since it took almost 200 years to build Notre Dame, the workers showed a lot of devotion, knowing that they would not get to see the finished structure.”
Like millions of others around the world who watched television’s live coverage of the devastating blaze that claimed much of one of the world’s most recognizable structures, Wiersma said it was difficult to watch, adding, “It was like watching a loved one die in front of you.”
At the same time, she is thankful that so many of relics, statues and art works were saved.
Wiersma added, “It’s heartwarming to see the outpouring of contributions to rebuild the cathedral.”
Describing Notre Dame as an “awesome building with its ornate glass windows and beautiful woodwork,” John Szarowicz of Smethport commented about his four visits to the cathedral. He said, “I am deeply saddened with such damage to a beautiful landmark,” he said. “It’s a very somber moment when you see a beautiful building damaged that much.”
Szarowicz’s wife, Kathy, also commented on her visit. “It’s so sad to see the damage to a great relic. Looking at Notre Dame from any angle was something beautiful to see.”
Their daughter, Brittany, who visited Notre Dame as part of a People to People group, briefly attended a public event. She was impressed by the significance of the cathedral and its history, as well as the works of art.
“I couldn’t believe the fire damage I saw on social media, especially the collapsing spire,” she said.
Joan Nelson Schultz has also visited the cathedral one time.
Prior to entering Notre Dame, she saw examples of poverty on the streets in front of the cathedral, while at other spots there were artists setting up their stands. Since France has no laws regulating auto emissions, the cathedral’s exterior has to be cleaned frequently, according to Schultz.
“When we walked inside, the height and grandeur of it took your breath away. It was so huge and magnificent and to think they built it so long ago without modern equipment like lifts and cranes.”
Schultz said the cathedral’s interior was cool since it was April. While not every room was open to the public at that time since workers were busy with maintenance, her group did nevertheless, visit more than one floor during their stay of several hours. She said, “We were close to the gargoyles on the roof.”
Schultz said she watched the TV news as soon as she heard about the fire. “I was devastated. I was afraid they would lose everything in the cathedral’s main part. I was relieved to see a line of people handing artwork and other items to each other to safety.”
As she watched the news, she remembers hearing the gasps of onlookers as they witnessed the spire’s collapse.
Notre Dame is such a famous landmark, Schultz concluded by saying, “You have to see it if you’re in Paris.”