It was an unfathomable, fiery tragedy that left millions of Roman Catholic faithful with a devastating sense of loss. The nation’s most important Catholic church — a centuries-old cathedral called Notre-Dame — was consumed by flames just days before one of the holiest dates on the Christian calendar.But in the wake of deep sorrow came resilience and resurrection, and an ultimately uplifting chapter of … Canadian history.For the multitudes in this country and around the world now mourning the pre-Easter inferno that left France’s magnificent, 856-year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral a charred and gutted mess, the rise-from-the-ashes saga of Quebec City’s own iconic Notre-Dame cathedral-basilica may offer some solace and hope.Burned beyond repair on the cusp of Christmas in December 1922, the historical and spiritual epicentre of Catholicism in Canada — its roots reaching back to 1647, its epic story already encompassing one renaissance after being bombarded and set aflame in the 1759 Battle of Quebec — was swiftly rebuilt and restored to its former glory.The parallel between Quebec’s trial by fire in 1922 and the present ordeal facing the people of Paris was not lost on Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, Archbishop of Quebec, when he reacted to news reports of the recent blaze in the French capital.“We share a deep sorrow today, watching helplessly as fire strikes the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris,” Cardinal Lacroix stated in French. “We remember that on December 22, 1922, it was the Notre-Dame cathedral of Quebec that was the victim of flames … In this Holy Week, as we celebrate the victory of Life over death, we will hold in our hearts the Catholic Church of Paris that history unites with that of Quebec.”
The Notre Dame in Paris.
Thierry Mallet /
As it happens, Cardinal Lacroix presided over a service last August at the famous Paris cathedral. “The almost nine centuries of history of this place of Christian worship,” he stated, “and the splendour of this world heritage that invites me to prayer, still live in me.”But his home base is the lesser known Notre-Dame, heart of Canada’s oldest Catholic parish and the country’s “primatial” church — a largely symbolic designation that grants Cardinal Lacroix the additional title of Primate of Canada.Declared a National Historic Site in 1989, the first version of the neoclassical cathedral that stands today in the core of Old Quebec was built in 1647 on the grounds of a chapel erected 14 years earlier under the direction of French explorer Samuel de Champlain.During the Seven Years War attack on Quebec in 1759 — generally viewed as the chief turning point in Canadian history — British forces destroyed the original church building en route to victory over French troops on the Plains of Abraham.But the defeat of New France did not bring an end to Notre-Dame’s role as the hub of religious activity in Quebec City and beyond. The church was rebuilt between 1766 and 1771 to resemble the original structure based on plans that had been drawn up in 1743 ahead of planned additions and renovations.By the mid-19th century, the cathedral was both a fixture of Quebec community life and a famous architectural landmark in a city that served as a capital of colonial Canada.An 1841 painting of Notre-Dame by the English artist Millicent Mary Chaplin, wife of a British army officer stationed in Quebec at the time, shows the cathedral towering above the city’s busy central square and a group of white-robed figures lined up outside its main entrance.By the dawn of the 20th century, the cathedral had gained the additional designation of basilica when Notre-Dame became the first official Catholic pilgrimage site in North America.Over the decades, the building’s interior was lavishly decorated and the church came to hold a vast archive and many valuable works of European art. The remains of some of the leading figures from the age of New France — including Bishop Laval and the Comte de Frontenac — were also buried at the cathedral site, which served as a shrine to Quebec’s history and culture as well as a place of worship and church leadership.When an uncontrollable fire broke out at Notre-Dame on Dec. 22, 1922, throngs of heartsick parishioners gathered to witness the destruction. “Priceless relics and archives dating back to the first settlements of Canada by the French more than 300 years ago were destroyed,” lamented a front-page story in the next day’s New York Times, which also noted that Dutch master Anthony Van Dyck’s Crucifixion was “among the priceless art treasures lost.”Newspapers across Canada carried breathless accounts from the scene. “Flames tore down the great edifice starting shortly before midnight,” the Montreal Gazette reported, “and at 2:30 the great tower and the chimes within were crumbling quickly into the yard.” The Edmonton Journal described how “a heap of smoking ruins amidst the scorched walls was all that was left of the fine old French basilica,” the pride of Quebec “because of its age and the beauty of its interior.”
Quebec City residents survey the scorched ruins after fire gutted the Notre-Dame cathedral-basilica in the heart of Old Quebec on Dec. 22, 1922.
As in France in recent days, Quebec’s political leaders strained in 1922 to articulate the magnitude of the loss and vowed that the cathedral would be promptly rebuilt.“Never have we suffered such a heartrending loss,” Quebec premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau stated the next day in the National Assembly, remarking that “our ancient church seemed to be part of our hearts; it belonged to our family life . . . This morning nothing remains but ashes,” he continued, but quickly added: “May our cathedral be soon rebuilt, so that it may occupy in our lives the large part which we have always had for it.”And the cathedral did soon rise again. Parishioners and dignitaries gathered on Oct. 4, 1925 — not quite three years after the church had been reduced to rubble and a few badly singed stone walls — for the christening of a new Notre-Dame, including six works of historical religious art donated by the French government to replace some of the treasures consumed in the fire.There was another noteworthy gift of art. Two sisters from France who had settled in Quebec City in the early 1900s were so moved by the cathedral’s devastation that they gave Notre-Dame a family heirloom worth a fortune: French painter Jacques-Louis David’s 1779 masterwork, Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment.Last year, the painting’s estimated current value of $6.3 million became public when the National Gallery of Canada controversially tried to sell a Marc Chagall painting of the Eiffel Tower to raise funds to acquire David’s Jerome from Notre-Dame.At the time of the Notre-Dame disaster, there was widespread speculation that an arsonist — possibly even anti-Catholic terrorists — had ignited not only the Quebec City blaze but a host of other suspicious fires at Catholic churches in Canada and the U.S. during the months before. Among those initially suspected were members of the racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, the U.S.-based secret society that was making significant inroads in Canada in the early 1920s.The arson theory gained more credence in 1927 when American career criminal and Ohio prison inmate Ray Marsden signed an affidavit saying he was part of a criminal gang that burgled and torched 17 churches across the U.S. and Canada, including Notre-Dame. The fires, he claimed, were set to distract authorities and cover up the theft of silver chalices and other valuable objects.But one of Marsden’s main motivations throughout his long life of crime appeared to be gaining press notoriety with sometimes grandiose claims of law-breaking. Still, Quebec police were intrigued enough by the man’s sworn statement that they tried to have him brought to Canada for questioning.“Police said a check of Marsden’s confession that he had robbed and set fire to a number of churches in Canada and the United States had confirmed many of his statements,” newspapers across North America reported in October 1927.But no cause of the Notre-Dame blaze was ever definitively identified, and Marsden was in and out of jail until the 1940s for further burgling of U.S. churches. Nearly a century after the 1922 fire, a mystery lingers.Meanwhile, the rebuilt Notre-Dame resumed its central role in the Catholic church and Quebec society. The 1989 historic site designation highlighted the cathedral’s “long and close associations with the history of New France” but also — and herein lies the lesson for Paris — its resilience in the aftermath of tragedy: “Enlarged and altered at different times during its history, the building was influential in Québec church architecture and remains an important focus of Roman Catholic life in the city.”Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former Postmedia News history writer.