Notre Dame Fire: ‘I literally stopped in my tracks and could not believe my eyes’

Marquette University mourns the cathedral damage with a packed mass at the campus’ own piece of medieval French architecture.

One Milwaukee resident who followed the fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral with special intensity this week was Derrick Witherington.

“On [this past] Monday afternoon I was out running a few job-related errands when my phone began buzzing constantly,” Witherington said in an interview Wednesday.

Derrick Witherington

Friends from the other side of the world were asking if he had heard the news of the Notre Dame fire.

“I literally stopped in my tracks and could not believe my eyes,” Witherington said. “To see such an icon of Western civilization and Catholic devotion up in flames really hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Witherington is the new assistant director of campus ministry at Marquette University, and part of his role is to oversee services at the university’s own piece of medieval French sacred architecture, the Joan of Arc Chapel on campus. The church was built in France in the 15th century and moved to the United States in the 20th, and finally reassembled on Marquette’s campus in the 1960s.

“The fact that it is an example of Medieval Gothic architecture, as well as the fact that it is dedicated to one of the patron saints of France, certainly brings the tragic events of this week close to home, particularly for our students,” he said. “I was particularly touched that on Monday evening (the day of the fire) more than 50 students showed up for the 10 p.m. Mass in that chapel as a sign of prayerful solidarity with those affected by the fire at Notre Dame.” 

But Witherington’s own relationship with Notre Dame is more direct. He visited the famed church seven or eight times during the seven years he was a student and then a researcher in Belgium – a stint that ended in January, when he left to take up his role at Marquette. During his Notre Dame visits he was especially drawn to a stone sculpture inside the cathedral of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.

Witherington earned a research master’s and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and then stayed on as a research assistant for the theology faculty.

It was an easy trip to Paris then: He’d take a 15-minute train ride to Brussels from his home in Louvain, and would then transfer to a high-speed train to Paris, which took only about an hour and half to get to the City of Lights.

“Each time I visited, I would always pay a visit to Notre Dame, usually trying to attend a morning service before the large crowds of tourists would arrive,” Witherington said.

A fire sparked within the Notre Dame Cathedral burned the spire and most of the roof on the 800-year-old church on Monday. The fire went on for most of the Paris evening, as thousands of tourists and natives of France watched the building burn, even joining together to sing the Ave Maria and pray for the flames to die. Five hundred firefighters were called and tried to tame the fire.

“As a Christian, it is very poignant, I think, that this great tragedy occurred during Holy Week, wherein we recall the holy mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection,” Witherington said. “During Holy Week, Christians commemorate the fact that death, darkness and destruction never have the final word.”

Witherington said as the belief that Christ rose from the darkness and despair of the grave, there is likewise belief that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes and stand for many centuries to come.  

Though the cause of the fire is unknown, what is known is the fact that many love the great work of history, so much so hundreds of millions of dollars has been donated for its rebuilding.

‘It’s also important to remember that a cathedral is more than just a building – it is a consecrated and hallowed place where we believe God meets his people in the sacraments,” Witherington said. “And where hundreds of thousands go to say a prayer and light a candle as an expression of their devotion.”

Though some of it is gone, much of Notre Dame still remains, including the relics of Christ’s passion, rose-windows, paintings and sculptures – including the Virgin Mary statue Witherington loves so much. 

“Seeing this statue still standing, rising above the charred rubble surrounding it, was very moving for me,” Witherington said.