Memories of Notre Dame

People in Paris attend a Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession April 19, 2019, near the gutted Notre Dame Cathedral. (CNS photo/Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters)

In the wake of the fire which seriously damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last month, NZ Catholic asked its publisher, Bishop Patrick Dunn, to share some of his memories of being at this famous church.

I remember two very significant visits to Notre Dame in Paris.

The first was in December, 1986. I was visiting Paris and had heard that Cardinal Lustiger celebrated Mass when he was in Paris every Sunday evening at Notre Dame and I was keen to see and hear him. When I arrived at the cathedral in the late afternoon, it was already full and a music concert was drawing to a close. To my pleasant surprise, few people left at the end of the concert, but many more arrived for the weekly Mass with the cardinal, so it was standing room only. Cardinal Lustiger preached with enthusiasm, but what touched me most was at the end of the Mass, when the recessional procession walked some way down the main aisle and then everyone stopped and turned to the statue of Notre Dame to sing the Salve Regina.

I was deeply moved by the face of French Catholicism which I encountered on that day and am pleased that we retain something of this practice at our cathedral in Auckland when we often pause to stand and face the shrine of Mary to sing a hymn in her honour, as I had experienced it on that Sunday evening in Paris so many years ago.

The second very memorable visit to Notre Dame Cathedral occurred in January, 2002. I was part of the group from New Zealand that had travelled to Paris to collect the remains of Bishop Pompallier from the suburban cemetery in Paris where he had lain somewhat unknown and then forgotten for 130 years.

One of our key contact people for this visit was Monsignor Jean-Yves Riocreux, who was then the Rector of Notre Dame and is now the Bishop of the Basse-Terre Diocese in the French Caribbean. With his support, we brought the remains of Bishop Pompallier, now in a new carved casket, from the cemetery to Notre Dame Cathedral for our final night in Paris. That evening, I and other priests from New Zealand joined Cardinal Lustiger and priests from the cathedral for the weekday Mass that evening with regular parishioners and Kiwis in Paris, whom Monsignor Riocreux had also invited for the occasion.

I remember that I preached briefly in French, Māori and English, and thanked the Church in France for sending Bishop Pompallier and the first generation of Catholic missionaries to Aotearoa-New Zealand from 1848 onwards. Hymns were sung in French, but also, we suspect for the first time in that great cathedral, in Te Reo Māori.

Some of our group kept watch with Bishop Pompallier in one of the side chapels during his last night in France before we left early the next morning for the long journey home to Aotearoa-New Zealand.

My memory of Notre Dame was of its gigantic size, its great antiquity and its breath-taking beauty. I am greatly relieved that the structure has not been damaged and that the damage caused by the fire will be repaired.

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Bishop Patrick Dunn

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