Why are we so fixated on it? Why, as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned Monday evening, did so much of the world stop and watch, horrified at the sight of the lone gothic tower, consumed in flames, plummeting into the inferno below?

To be sure, it was a stunning piece of architecture dating back to the 12th century. But it was also a church – and nothing quite takes the breath away like the sight of a church crashing to the ground.

I first learned that when I was 10.

I was in fifth grade at St. Joseph’s School in Needham, Mass. Directly across May Street from the school stood the parish church, itself of gothic design, the center of my world at the time.

I was baptized there. I received First Holy Communion there. My parents belonged to CFM – short for Christian Family Movement – there. My mother played the organ there, my father served as lector there, my older brother and I were altar boys there and my sisters walked in May Processions there.

It was, from where I sat by the window in Sister Mary Eunice’s classroom, a spiritual fortress that seemed to reach all the way to heaven. I’d gaze up at the tips of the four ornate spires and wonder, “How did they get all the way up there without falling?”

I figured it was some kind of miracle.

Then one day, after months of nebulous talk about “the new church,” the wrecking ball arrived.

Any other building, it would have been pre-adolescent nirvana. A huge crane, dangling a massive steel ball from a cable, poised to pulverize with maximum destructive efficiency. What’s not to like?

But this was the church. Our church. And as the ball dropped for the first time and unceremoniously punched a hole through the roof, I suddenly felt sick inside. The sound of the rafters snapping stopped even Sister Mary Eunice in her tracks.

And so it began, day after day, until all that was left was a pile of earthly rubble.

Gone was the echo that rolled from the back to the front of the nave whenever someone opened the oversized front doors. No more sacristy, where the cassocks and surplices had hung for decades as generations of altar boys like me came and went. What once smelled like incense, imbued into the structure over countless funerals and High Masses, now smelled like mere dust. The mural of Jesus teaching his elders in the Temple, while an anxious Mary and Joseph look on, erased forever.

For two years, we went to Mass in the school cafeteria or gymnasium. A room in the school basement was converted into a temporary, makeshift chapel, but it wasn’t the same. The ever-growing congregation, once ensconced in row after row of stately wooden pews, now squeezed cheek-to-jowl into spaces never meant to be the spiritual nucleus of a parish.

I’ve thought about that old church over the years whenever I’ve read or heard about the demise of a spiritual sanctuary. None match the tragedy of what happened Monday in Paris, where centuries of history succumbed – not to terrorism or a natural disaster, but to something so pedestrian as an apparent renovation accident.

Still, the loss of any church is a solemn moment.

Watching Notre Dame burn, I wondered how the good folks of St. Landry Parish in Louisiana are doing this week. Over the last month, three of their predominantly black churches allegedly were torched by the 21-year-old son of a local deputy sheriff.

Already across Louisiana, funds are pouring in to build new churches where those ones stood. And in Paris, France’s three richest families now lead a fundraising campaign that has already topped $700 million to save what can be saved and rebuild what can’t.

Back in my old hometown of Needham, the old church is but a memory – albeit one brought back in stark relief Tuesday morning when I went online and actually found a photo of that wrecking ball hitting the steeple.

I’d be lying if I professed to have the same attachment to any church now that I had back then. Too much has happened over too many years, from a calcified hierarchy to a sordid legacy of child sexual abuse, for me wrap myself in the same fealty that marked those early years.

Still, away from all the scandal, away from the rules that seem more suited to the era when Notre Dame was first built than the one in which it burned, something about churches sets them apart from other human creations. They are where we gather, however rare or frequent the inclination, to celebrate, to mourn, to reflect and, yes, to pray.

It took a good two years to build the “new” St. Joseph’s Church in Needham. I recall, while serving the dedication for none other than Richard Cardinal Cushing, how sterile it all felt – the polished marble too shiny, the pads on the kneelers too stiff, that unmistakable church smell yet to take hold.

But I also remember looking over at the stained-glass window nearest the left side of the altar. It depicts St. Elizabeth Seton, the patron saint of the parish nuns, standing with a young boy and girl, both dressed in St. Joseph school uniforms.

The little blonde girl in the plaid jumper is my sister, Beth, who was plucked from her classroom one day along with Huey Burns (now a priest) for the photo shoot. Beth died from cancer at the age of 21; light from that same window shone in on her funeral.

Why do we drop everything when an iconic church, synagogue or mosque falls victim to fire, hate or simply the passage of time? Is it a mere building that we mourn?

One need only to have watched scores of Parisians, softly singing the Ave Maria as they stood in the darkness and watched their cathedral burn, to know that it was something more.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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