Cathedral, fire sear impressions on Saint Michael's College
“It may not feel the same to visit Paris without Notre-Dame the way it was,” said Edmundite Fr. Marcel Rainville ’67, who has led numerous heritage tours to France exploring the French Catholic roots of Saint Michael’s College’s founding religious order to which he belongs.
Fr. Rainville’s impressions, shared Tuesday morning a day after a catastrophic fire damaged much (but mercifully not all) of the famous Parisian landmark, reflected the thoughts of many other Saint Michael’s community members with meaningful memories of Notre Dame Cathedral.
“I am heartbroken to see this devastating fire at Notre Dame,” said Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt, who has her doctorate in French literature. “I lived in Paris as a graduate student and have also visited the city as a tourist. I have always been in awe of the beauty and majesty of Notre Dame at the heart of the city. The firefighters did heroic work in saving so much of the cathedral and its artwork.”
Peggy Imai, Saint Michael’s director of Study Abroad, said that as the news broke Monday afternoon, she watched the reports with great sadness from Klein Hall where her office is. “Philosophy Professor Patrick Standen and I were in his office when the spire tower fell, and my thought was that it was good to be with someone else as such news was breaking,” Imai said. “We don’t have students in Paris right now, but we have four students in France, and five of our students studied in Paris last spring.”
Fr. Rainville offered more context from his many encounters with Notre Dame Cathedral while leading College trips to France. “On the many the Heritage trips we made to Paris, it was usually not part of a group visit so much as a personal one and folks were encouraged to visit, go to Mass, or told of special services being offered there,” he said. “Everyone needed to ‘take it in’ at hers or his own pace. It’s a tremendous loss, but I have the feeling that it will be resurrected, appropriate for Holy Week, in ways that maybe only the French can imagine is possible.”
Musical memories abound
Among the most personal connections to the Cathedral in the Saint Michael’s community are from Emeritus Fine Arts Professor and Organist William Tortolano, who twice brought the Saint Michael’s Chorale (which he directed for decades) to Paris, where they sang from the altar in Notre Dame Cathedral, including during Mass — once in the late 1970s and once in the 1980s.
Tortolano, who led his Chorales on tours to other sites in Europe too back then including Belgium and the Vatican, keenly and fondly also recalls playing a 1980 recital before thousands of mostly tourists, on the ancient and spectacular main Notre Dame Cathedral organ — which, nearly miraculously, was spared in the fire, according to news reports.
“It was quite a thrill to do that 1980 concert — it was between Mass and Vespers and you get a huge crowd – I felt like a rock star,” Tortolano recalled. “I also twice conducted the Saint Michael’s Chorale there since we toured Europe many times when I directed, including singing for the U.S. ambassador to NATO in Brussels, at Notre Dame, and even singing High Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.”
His 1980 concert was the result of an invitation when Tortolano was on sabbatical in Europe studying Gregorian chant. “It’s a huge four-manual — that is, keyboard — organ and you only are given two hours to practice at night before the concert; they close the doors at 8 p.m. That’s not long to get to know a huge organ like that, but fortunately for me, the organ tuner was there and was able to quickly tell me about the organ and what to use and what not to use.”
He estimates that 6,000 people were present to hear him play that concert — primarily tourists coming through between Mass and Vespers. “It was a very great thrill, since people don’t often get a chance to be a guest organist at Notre Dame. They don’t even pay you for performing those concerts since it is considered to be such an honor, which it was for me.”
Tortolano chuckles at the memory of one famous French organist who showed him up 40 or 50 steep curving steps to the instrument and pointed out the “bathroom”: a door out to the roof by the gargoyles, should nature’s call get too urgent up there.
“My 1980 recital went quite well and I have a recording of it still – I would say that’s the highlight of my career playing concerts. The organ goes back centuries, though there have been additions throughout,” Tortolano said.
A favorite memory for him from the Chorale concert tours was when they sang on the main altar, accompanied by an also-nice but smaller pipe organ. A French priest in the Cathedral for that Mass came to to give him and his then-student (now a diocesan priest) Yvon Royer Holy Communion. After asking where they were from and hearing the answer, the priest exclaimed “I studied English there! Winooski!” recalls Tortolano, who adds, “he practically dropped the chalice, he was so excited! So you see, people think St. Mike’s is not famous, but I found it to be famous all over the world!”
Paul Galbraith ’78 was in Tortolano’s Chorale during one of the performance trips. He recalls going for a week or two at Christmas break, flying to England, taking a ferry to Belgium and then heading to France to the Cathedral before returning. “I’m sorry not to have any photos – the technology was not as easy as it is today,” says Galbraith. “My one memory was that Dr.T had me solo and introduction to a Gregorian Chant and it seemed my voice just echoed like going through a canyon forever. The acoustics were so perfect for singing.”
Peter Vantine of the College’s French faculty recalled spending his full junior year of College in Paris and returning often since for research and pleasure. “Last summer (2018), during a vacation in France, my wife, two children, and I spent a few days in Paris, and we climbed one of the bell towers of the cathedral to the roof for an up-close look at the gargoyles and Gothic architecture, and a beautiful view of the city,” the French professor said.
John Izzi of the Saint Michael’s philosophy faculty spent his 20s in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne, and now has an apartment in the City of Lights that is his home for all summer and winter breaks, when he is not teaching in Vermont. “It’s hard to imagine it not being there as it’s always been — it’s like losing a body part,” Izzi said of the apparent fire damage. “I’m sure most Parisians would say the same thing; it’s the heart and soul of Paris and the center of the city.”
His own Paris apartment, which he owns, is less than a mile away from the Cathedral, and through the decades, Izzi (not a religious person) still has passed Notre Dame frequently and stopped in for concerts or just to enjoy the beauty, he said — though in recent times the huge tourist lines have made that far harder.
“I had a call from a friend last night from Paris who said people were crying in the streets and in the Metro,” said Izzi, who was hosting Saint Mike’s students at his Vermont home Monday when he heard the news. “There’s such an attachment to Notre Dame if you live in Paris. It’s a cultural icon because of the history of it,” he said. “It’s been there all these centuries, so you look at it and it gives you a sense of continuity with the history of the city.”
Said Vantine, “It is such an iconic building and site in France that this dramatic destruction by fire will be profoundly upsetting to many in France, as well as to many who have traveled from around the world over the years to visit it. I have confidence, though, in France’s resilience, which has been tested more than once in recent years.”