Cathedral resurrection: A look at famous houses of worship reborn after destruction

Mike James

The conflagration Monday that has consumed huge sections of the 12th-century Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has left people around the world aghast. But is it the end of one of the world's architectural and religious treasures?

If history has taught us anything, the answer is no. In fact, the Church of England has already predicted that Notre Dame – no matter how much it lies in ruin – will stand whole again.

"No matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such catastrophes," said Becky Clark, the Church of England's director of cathedrals and church buildings. "All have been rebuilt, sometimes taking on new forms, to stand as reminders of eternity and resurrection."

More: 'Worst has been avoided': Notre Dame Cathedral's structure is saved; French president vows to rebuild

Throughout the centuries, famous churches and other holy places have been laid to waste by war, fire, sabotage, earthquakes and just plain old age. And in the case of many, they were rebuilt to their former – or more contemporary – glory.

Flames seen through scaffolding at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral during a fire on April 15, 2019. A huge fire swept through the roof of the famed cathedral sending flames and huge clouds of gray smoke billowing into the sky.

Here's a look at some of the more famous examples of resurrected holy buildings:

1. London's Old St. Paul's Cathedral. Built from 1087 to 1314, the legendary structure, sheathed in wooden scaffolding during a renovation, was completely gutted in the Great Fire of London in 1666. 

The English writer John Evelyn was an eyewitness to the destruction's aftermath and described it succinctly: "Thus lay in ashes that most venerable church, one of the most ancient pieces of early piety in the Christian world."

But the cathedral was rebuilt with a new design by the noted Sir Christoper Wren and was completed by 1710. Today, the new St. Paul's stands as one of the most famous and recognizable sights in London.

More: 850-year-old Notre Dame survived the French Revolution. Here are 4 other things to know

2. Germany's Dresden Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady.) Built in the 18th century, the church was spectacularly destroyed by Allied forces in the bombing of Dresden during World War II. More than 600,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Dresden and the church at one point reached 1,830 degrees F because of the bombing campaign. Witnesses described the church's pillars glowing bright red and eventually exploding.

Mostly in rubble, the ruins were left for 50 years as a war memorial at the wishes of East German leaders.

More: 'Today's loss hurts so much': Tour guides heartbroken, shocked by Notre Dame fire

But a new age of thinking came after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. A massive effort to rebuild the church began in 1994 with the help of modern technology. The rubble was carted off stone by stone. Builders, using thousands of old photographs and recollections of worshippers, finished the work in 2005.

The project inspired other revitalization efforts throughout Europe and millions have visited the church.

3. Italy's Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino. The abbey, about 80 miles southeast of Rome, was a noted holy place for monks that had endured for over 1,000 years prior to World War II. But in February 1944, Allied bombers dropped about 1,000 tons of explosives on the town. The abbey and its adjoining church were turned to rubble. Among the treasures lost were the elaborately detailed frescoed walls of the building.

The abbey was rebuilt by 1964 and much of its art collection and famous books had fortunately been transferred to the Vatican before the bombings. The cloister was completely redone with classical elements, columns and statues, according to the architectural design web site homesthetics.net.

"The monument stands today, and is a symbol of man's enduring will to preserve the heritage of his world," the website wrote.

Prince Harry of Great Britain (R) visits Montecassino Abbey with father Antonio (C) on May 18, 2014 in Cassino for the 70th anniversary of a key World War II battle in which tens of thousands died. Army captain Harry, 29, attended a ceremony with veterans to remember Polish and New Zealand war dead and will honour Britain's fallen soldiers on Monday. The prince in dress uniform laid a wreath at the Polish War Cemetery near the Abbey of Monte Cassino in a ceremony with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

4. New Zealand's Christchurch Cathedral. Once one of the city's top tourist attractions, the building was heavily damaged by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 2011 that killed 185 people and demolished several buildings. The spire of the Gothic revival style cathedral toppled amid the quake.

The top of the damaged Cathedral on February 24, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand. A massive search and rescue mission is underway and least 76 people have died after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck 20km southeast of Christchurch at around 1pm local time on Tuesday. The quake, which was an aftershock of a 7.1 magnitude quake which struck the South Island city on September 4, 2010, has seen damage and fatalities far exceeding those of the original.

The Anglican Church of New Zealand, amid some controversy and infighting over a new design, is in the midst of rebuilding the church. It will take several more years before it is completed.

5. Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This famous church, originally built during the 19th century and the scene of Tchaikovsky's premiere of the 1812 Overture, was razed in 1931 under orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The destruction was intended to make way for a giant edifice called the Palace of the Soviets that would have housed the Soviet legislature.

But the palace was never built for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. At one point in the 1950s, the hole in the ground where the church stood was transformed into the world's largest open-air swimming pool. 

A pidgeon flies above Christ the Saviour Cathedral, in Moscow on April 7, 2019.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the cathedral was finally rebuilt on the same site between 1995 and 2000. The new cathedral is a noted landmark on the city skyline along the Moscow River, and contains statues of former Russian tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II, symbolic homages to pre-Soviet times.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cathedral resurrection: A look at famous houses of worship reborn after destruction