Cobble Hill

French Brooklynites mull the fall of Notre Dame’s spire

April 22, 2019 Noah Goldberg
An inferno that raged through Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15 for more than 12 hours destroyed its spire and its roof. AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
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As millions of Catholics around the world poured into churches to observe Good Friday, about 50 Brooklynites gathered in Cobble Hill that evening for a special kind of service. Inside the Parish of St. Paul & St. Agnes, they sang and listened to their priest tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. They lined up and kissed the feet of Jesus on the cross as an altar boy wiped away previous kisses with a white towelette.

This service — unlike most others in the city — was delivered entirely in French, for an audience made up entirely of French Catholics.

Father Paul Anel — who hails from Tarascon-sur-Ariège, a French commune near the Spanish border — took 15 minutes out of his sermon to expatiate on the subject of last week’s fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“The fall of the spire — it’s like an arrow pointing to heaven, that’s architecturally what it means. It’s both a movement toward heaven and also a sign of reception and connection with heaven,” Anel said from the pulpit.

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He saw the fall of the spire as a sign from God that French society is moving away from Catholicism. Anel hopes that shocking, fiery image can bring his people back to the church.

“I’m hoping that sometimes when you lose something, you realize how much you needed it,” he said.

For the last five years at St. Paul & St. Agnes, Anel has held mass every Sunday in French for Brooklyn’s burgeoning French community. Father Alex Morard said attendance at the church has grown because of international schools in the area where French residents send their children.

The church, undergoing repairs, is bolstered on the outside by scaffolding, evoking a classic New York look — but also a reminder of the fragile frame of old churches.

Father Paul Anes raises the cross on Good Friday at the Parish of St Paul & St. Agnes in Cobble Hill. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg.
Father Paul Anes raises the cross on Good Friday at the Parish of St Paul & St. Agnes in Cobble Hill. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg.

Marie Paule Castellanos lived in the Bronx for 44 years, but she now lives in Brooklyn and attends services at St. Paul & St. Agnes. She visited Notre Dame several times with her family in her Parisian youth. “I was not aware it was possible for this to happen. It’s so sad. It’s something you don’t want to see,” she said.

Castellanos came with her old friend Françoise Vernon, who remembered the days at St. Paul & St Agnes when only four or five French people attended services.

“The fact that we have these French priests… when you see these young men who are a new generation, it gives hope,” she said.

Despite that hope, Vernon understood the fire at Notre Dame to represent a dramatic, cataclysmic sign from God on the state of French religiosity. “I believe this event happened during Holy Week as a kind of sign that something is wrong,” she said.

“I think we are going away from the church. We don’t fulfill our heritage of being Christian.”

François Xavier, a product manager who lives in the neighborhood, recognized that Notre Dame held meaning even for people who don’t practice Christianity.

“If you don’t believe in anything, it’s still a part of the city. It’s part of the country. You have memories as a kid. You go there with your grandparents,” he said.

“It’s scarred for life. Even if we have the means to rebuild it, it’s not the same thing,” he said.

Down the street at the local French bistro Bar Tabac, the owner, George Forgeois, decided not to host any event for Notre Dame. “It’s not really something to celebrate,” he said.

Every year for the past 16 years, Bar Tabac has hosted a lively Bastille Day festival, covering the street in sand and hosting a massive pétanque tournament.

A day after the fire, however, the mood was not particularly patriotic. One French waiter noted sarcastically the tax breaks for the billionaires who donated money to the rebuilding effort.

Another waiter, as he delivered a burger to an outdoor table, said, “You want a story? People are dying of hunger on the streets of Paris and yet we give money for a church.”

Follow Brooklyn Eagle reporter Noah Goldberg on Twitter

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