NASHVILLE — A fire ravaged the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris during the most significant week of the year in the Catholic Church.
It's Holy Week.
Catholics should be commemorating Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection in its pews at Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. Instead, a massive inferno is threatening to destroy the culturally and religiously significant icon for good.
The timing of the blaze immediately struck the Very Rev. John Hammond, a Nashville priest and who has celebrated Mass at the revered cathedral and played its famous pipe organ. The more than 850-year-old Gothic structure is the cathedral for the Archdiocese of Paris and a functioning church, he said.
"This is going to be an even greater struggle for the people of Paris who would normally be flocking to the cathedral for these very special liturgies this week," Hammond said.
The cause of the fire is not immediately known, but officials say it could be linked to the $6.8 million renovation work that was in progress at Notre Dame cathedral.
As the news of the fire spread to the U.S., Notre Dame University in Indiana clarified on its official Twitter account that it was the Paris cathedral not their campus that was on fire.
But the distance did not make the blaze any less shocking to Krupali Krusche, a historical preservation expert and professor at the university. She and her fourth-year architecture students were streaming live footage of the blaze in their University of Notre Dame classroom.
"It's a major loss to humanity and to the citizens of France and to everybody else," Krusche said. "To us as conservationists, of people that work on treasuring major sites like this, this is a sad day."
Krusche, who has documented world heritage sites for moments like this, could tell from the online videos that the damage would be extensive from this fire.
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"Those flames that are happening at the cathedral right now, it's the level where stone starts melting," Krusche said. "A fire of this size especially during the restoration process of the cathedral is going to be starting from scratch in many, many ways."
Students from the Indiana college visit Paris every year, Krusche said. In two weeks, a group in the university's Rome program were supposed to travel to the city and study Notre Dame. Those plans will now have to be reconsidered, she said.
People connect with Notre Dame on multiple levels, Krusche said. It's religiously and architecturally significant, but it also has an impact on the beauty in the world, she said.
It resonates with anyone who wants to study Gothic architectural traditions and it also represents the highest level of cathedral design, she said.
"Religiously, as a piece of architecture that signifies Catholic tradition to its highest, it is one of the key monuments out there," Krusche said.
Anna Harrison, an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who is taking a class of about a dozen students to Paris this summer, said the cathedral has held deep meaning for Catholics over the centuries.
Her goal was to "try to understand how medieval Christians would have occupied the space, the role it played in their larger devotional life." Particularly then, when the cathedral towered over the city, "it must have stimulated a sense of awe," Harrison said.
The Medieval Thought and Practice class had planned to pay particular attention not only to the architecture, but the statues and stained glass. She added that the cathedral "communicates a beautiful dimension of human beings" and that it also marks "dazzling feats of architectural engineering."
Nora Heimann, the chair of the Art Department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said she has led more than 20 tours to Notre Dame and Paris’ other significant churches.
"I am heartbroken at the devastation of today's fire," she said in an email. "It is hard to imagine how much history has been lost in today's conflagration."
“For me, it’s a very personal thing,” said Heimann of her visits to Notre Dame. She said she is moved by the way stones have worn from the legions of pilgrims who have called on the church over the centuries. Though it is a tourist destination, she said she has worshiped there and come to hear musical performances. “For me, I felt the history of the place.”
Hammond, who is the pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Nashville and a vicar general for the local diocese, remembers feeling the significance of Notre Dame when he celebrated Mass with a group of visiting pilgrims at the cathedral a couple years ago.
"It was an incredible experience," Hammond said. "You're surrounded by not only such a magnificent building in terms of its architecture, but just the history, the centuries and centuries of the worship of God sort of are they're in the air. They kind of seep out of the walls."
"It's a very special place. It's one of those places that you feel sort of timeless," Hammond said.
Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.
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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Notre Dame fire: Catholics 'heartbroken' as blaze ravages iconic cathedral during Holy Week