In Depth with Brad Byrd: Dr. James MacLeod talks about the fire at Notre Dame

In Depth with Brad Byrd

A fire broke out at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  As darkness fell over Paris, you could hear people singing, praying and then there were tears.

The Chair of the History Department at the University of Evansville, James MacLeod is talking about his experience at the Notre Dame cathedral.

Full Transcription:

Brad Byrd: Welcome to in-depth. The disaster at Notre Dame cathedral seemed surreal in many ways. as darkness over Paris fell people could be heard singing, praying and then there were the tears. Joining me live tonight is Dr. James MacLeod. He is the Chair of the History Department at the University of Evansville and I could say he is still a student of history as well. Dr. MacLeod, thank you so much for being here tonight.

When were you at Notre Dame cathedral several years ago, what was that first feeling of ambience like?

Dr. James MacLeod: I think the first word that you would use is just awe. You walk into that building and it is so large, and the ceilings are so high, and the windows are so huge that it takes your breath away. Even if you’re not a religious person, the sheer scale and the beauty of that building is something that never leaves you.

Brad Byrd:  And it transcends history in many ways, we’re talking about eight centuries and that’s hard to process in this day and age. But it helped shape the history of, not only Paris and France, but parts of the world. So, it’s not only a symbol of Catholicism but also of history itself.

Dr. James MacLeod: Oh yea, definitely. I think centrally, this is a Catholic cathedral, a Catholic church, but it’s much more than that. It’s a symbol of Paris, itself, one of the most beautiful and romantic and loved cities in the world and it’s a symbol of European civilization. But I think more than anything, it’s a symbol of humanity. That building was built by human beings, it was built predominantly by men, masons and artisans of various kinds.

Brad: They didn’t have the tools we have today.

Dr. MacLeod: Absolutely not. And when most of the people began that building process know they’re not going to see the project completed. So, I think it’s a wonderful example, demonstration, of human faith, not necessarily in a religious stance, but just faith in what you’re doing has importance.

Brad Byrd: And it survived in many ways the French Revolution, two World Wars – it’s had several transitions, several works in progress, but one thing I’m fascinated about is, especially WWII, how did it survive the Nazi’s?

Dr. James MacLeod: Well, I think there were many beautiful buildings were destroyed during WWII and cathedrals among them, but I think the Nazi’s were always worried about keeping the majority Christian population on their side and they certainly didn’t want to offend the Vatican anymore than they had to. 
Brad Byrd: We have a picture right here of American soldiers in front of the Notre Dame shortly after the liberation in Paris.

Dr. James MacLeod: Yea, I think more damage was done to the Notre Dame during the French Revolution. It was a largely secular movement and a lot of things were destroyed and damaged at that time. And in fact, it was in the 19th century that a lot of renovations took place and made it look exactly like it does today, including that spiral that fell in the afternoon.

Brad Byrd: And when you saw that today for the first time, the building on fire and obviously the symbolic reach of this disaster in many ways is, seeing that spiral slowly and then finally there it goes. What were your feelings when you saw that?

James MacLeod: It’s heartbreaking to see that. I heard an art historian saying this is the kind of building that you always assume will outlive you. It was there when you were born, and it’ll be there when you die. And to see a building like Notre Dame dying in front of your eyes, and you couldn’t help but feel tears to your eyes.

Brad Byrd: And that’s the French Ambassador you told me.

James MacLeod: Yea, the French Ambassador said he was watching it and didn’t even realize he was crying until he was crying. Because it has a deep place in the hearts of French people, and we’re seeing tonight, reactions from all over the world – with people of many different faiths, responding to this, not being destroyed, but being badly damaged.

Brad Byrd: And Harlexton, you’ve taught there, UE’s European School, many students have been there to Notre Dame.

James MacLeod: Oh yea, the school organizes a trip to Paris every semester, and Notre Dame is at the top of most students list. And I think if you ask students at the end of the semester, what was the most magical moment of your trip? A lot of them would say that trip to Notre Dame. And I think from a Harlexton perspective, it’s a reminder of how these old buildings, if you’re not careful, these things can go very quickly.

Brad Byrd: And you told me many of these magnificent structures – over the past few centuries – either the weather, mother nature would come in and topple them, or perhaps conflicts, they’d rebuild them.

James MacLeod: I think the story of European cathedrals is that we built them, and something would cause them to fall down and we would rebuild them. So, cathedrals have been damaged many times in the past, and in fact most cathedrals when you visit them, what’s there today is a mix of architectural styles because of the times they’ve had to be rebuilt. And I have no doubt, this being Notre Dame, it will be rebuilt.

Brad Byrd: And there has been some question today, should Pope Francis go to Paris this weekend? This weekend that’s usually a weekend of celebration.

James MacLeod: Yea, I think that if it had happened almost any other weekend, I think you could predict that Pope Francis would go to Paris, but I imagine his schedule is very tight with Holy Week and he has a lot of commitments I guess. But I’m seeing suddenly on social media a lot of people urging him to go and calling him to go.  It’s a symbol that unifies Catholics for sure and I know Francis would want to be there as soon as he can for sure.

Brad Byrd: And we were talking briefly in the newsroom that history is the tie that binds. It tends to bring – in this very polarized world we live in – people together. We saw that in the faces of the people outside of Notre Dame.

James MacLeod: Yea, Paris has been in the news over the last few weeks because of conflict, you know, a very deeply divided society, and deep arguments over many political issues. And what you saw tonight was Parisians of all colors and all backgrounds, standing silently shoulder to shoulder watching this happen. And supporting the fire fighters and their battle. And silently in unity. And their response to this tragedy.

Brad Byrd: The more things change, the more they stay the same. It took the Notre Dame about 100 years to finish. Alright thank you Dr. James MacLeod, thank you for being with us tonight.

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(This story was originally published on April 15, 2019)

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