Notre Dame fire leaves San Francisco sister cathedral reflecting on its own vulnerability

In this image made available on Tuesday April 16, 2019 flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre
Flames and smoke rise from a massive fire Monday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
(Thierry Mallet / Associated Press)

As Notre Dame burned in the heart of Paris, the news reached one of its sister cathedrals more than 5,000 miles away.

The Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is the third largest in the United States. In 1906, it burned as fire consumed the city in the aftermath of one of the largest earthquakes in history. The cathedral was rebuilt over time in the French Gothic style of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. And the spire that rests atop the building is nearly identical to the one that fell in France on Monday.

“We have the exact same architectural feature on our building that’s seen from miles and miles around the city,” the Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young, dean of Grace Cathedral, said. “It symbolizes our longing for transcendence.”

Every cathedral is connected in a loose network, Young said. And those built in the Gothic style for which Notre Dame is known — including the National Cathedral in Washington and St. John’s in New York, which was forced to offer its Palm Sunday services outside when a basement fire erupted this past weekend — are bound in a sisterhood.


Their lavish designs make them impossible to ignore, and their roots typically intertwine with the history of their respective cities. Though they aren’t uniform in appearance, they mirror each other in stature.

“San Francisco grew up with Grace,” Young said. Just as Paris grew up with Notre Dame.

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is a sister cathedral to Paris’ Notre Dame.
(Courtesy of Grace Cathedral)

Sunday marked the start of Holy Week, the holiest days of the year in Christianity, which culminates in the celebration of Easter Sunday. It was impossible to ignore the weight of time as onlookers watched Paris’ symbolic pinnacle melt centuries after it first stood.


Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire. But Notre Dame’s 850-year-old design may have aided the flames that nearly destroyed it.

Victor Hugo once described the cathedral as a “vast symphony in stone.” It’s also a structure made of timber and open spaces that lacks proper fire protections — a combination that experts say left it vulnerable.

San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral is reinforced by steel, a lesson learned after the first church was destroyed. Still, Young is constantly aware of the possibility of its destruction.

“It’s a human thing, and all human things can be destroyed and ruined.”

Grace Cathedral will have a service Wednesday that will include prayers for Notre Dame and the people of Paris.

Twitter: @cshalby

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