Last night, as I was making more travel plans, I was blissfully oblivious to the horror unfolding in Paris, as its famous Notre Dame cathedral smoldered in a massive fire. I have been to Paris twice, but never managed to tour the cathedral on either visit. I do remember seeing it as we walked along the Seine, but I also remember my former best friend’s dad telling me back in 1992 to skip climbing the tower at the cathedral. I do like visiting beautiful churches in Europe, but it’s not really a focal point of what I do when I go places. Paris has a lot to see, so visiting Notre Dame was never at the top of my list of things to do there. I regret it now.
It seems like April is often rife with tragedies. I never paid a lot of attention to it until around 1999 or so, when students at Columbine High School were confronted by the murderous wrath of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they shot up the school. Other school shootings would occur during April, like the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But it’s not just the shootings and bombings, or even T.S. Eliot’s famed words that make April cruel…
I remember in the spring 2001, when Ruffner Hall, the most historic and beautiful building at my alma mater, Longwood University, was being restored. I was then a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, about to finish my second year of a three year dual master’s degree program. The weather was warm and sunny, and I had visions of the end of the semester dancing in my head. I’m sure it was the same at Longwood, the college from which I had graduated seven years prior. In 2001, Longwood was still known as Longwood College. It was renamed Longwood University in 2002.
On April 24, 2001, just before students were about to take their final exams for the semester, the Rotunda caught on fire. Fortunately, because the building was being renovated, just as Notre Dame also was, priceless art and historical relics had been removed before a raging fire consumed the original building. That beautiful building held so many memories, not just for me, but for all of the students that passed through it after it opened in 1907. Longwood’s name has been changed a few times in its history. Before each name change, there has historically been a fire. There were also fires in 1927 and 1949; both occurred just before the school’s name changed.
I happened to live in the Colonnades during the first two years of my college days. My freshman year, I lived in Tabb Hall, which connected to Ruffner. At night, when the building was closed to everyone else on campus, my buddies would sneak into the Rotunda area and box. I only recall watching this one time. I’m surprised they were never busted, to be very honest. I’m sure nowadays, they have security cameras. But it was a lot of fun to sneak into Ruffner and mess around after hours. Unlike the bell tower at Fordham University, there was no danger involved… The lights were on and there were no steep, spiral steps to climb… and no holes to pass through on landings. At the front door of the building, there was a slate step that had a deep indentation worn into it from decades of students walking across it.
Sophomore year, I lived in French Hall, which was also connected to Ruffner. French is no longer a residence hall, but in the 1990s, it had the largest rooms on campus. Some rooms held four students. Most had at least three. My room only had three students for part of the first semester. We had a roommate who moved in mid semester– she had been my roommate’s freshman year roomie, and she had to move from her room because she and her original sophomore year roommate were caught smoking marijuana. She didn’t come back in the spring. That was a pretty stressful, yet awesome year. I lived among friends.
The other two years, I lived in South Cunningham. The Cunninghams used to be the center of campus. They were eventually razed for a new student center. My former university is becoming less recognizable to me, as new buildings are being built and old ones are being rebuilt.
Ruffner was also rebuilt, and it now looks just like it did before the big fire of 2001. It took four years to rebuild the historic hall to its former glory, and during that time, Dr. James Jordan, an esteemed anthropology professor and archaeologist who taught at Longwood for many years, did several archaeological digs. He found many long buried relics among the ashes. The damaged step was found and when the building was reconstructed, a replica of the historic indented step was made for the new building.
As I heard about Notre Dame last night, I couldn’t help but remember the Rotunda at my alma mater, and how it’s been rebuilt. Maybe it’s not the same… Notre Dame has a history dating back to the 12th century. It took many years to build it, but only one fiery evening to destroy it. On the other hand… even in destruction, there is opportunity for new growth, new discoveries, and rebirth. I’m certain that in the ashes of the fire, new discoveries will be made, new knowledge will be gleaned, history will be made and recorded, and the cathedral will be rebuilt. In fact, French billionaire François-Henri Pinault has already pledged $100 million euros to rebuild the cathedral (and hours later, at least 200 million more has been pledged by other donors). French president Emmanuel Macron has also vowed to rebuild the cathedral.
This is an opportunity for people to unite. It’s an opportunity for architects, craftsmen, construction workers, archaeologists, students, teachers, holy people, and the public to come together in solidarity. Many new discoveries will be made and the cathedral, just like Ruffner Hall, will be rebuilt stronger than ever. But it will take time, effort, and money. I may never see the end result in my lifetime. Still, as bad as this is, it could have been much worse. As sad as it will be to dig through the wreckage, I know there will also be excitement and fascination. Every situation– even the worst ones– offers opportunities. So I will try to focus on that, instead of tragedy of the tremendous loss wrought by sudden fire.