WASHINGTON (CNS) – The world was shocked in April 2019 as flames devoured Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Eventually, burnt roof sections collapsed into the Gothic monument which was finally completed in 1345 after nearly 200 years of construction.

A little over two years after the disaster, in the shadow of an emblematic Catholic shrine of the national capital, teams of architects, carpenters, craftsmen and students – joined by a cardinal – have slowly and gently pulled on ropes to raise a roof truss that can help guide builders who will replace Notre Dame’s roof.

The August 3 event at the Catholic University of America’s grassy mall, with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as a backdrop, was part of a collaboration to research, model and build a version large scale historically accurate of Ferme n ° 6 de Notre Dame.

After months of preparation, the campus hosted for two weeks a team of 75 people who took logs transported from the mountains of Virginia, chopped them into wood and assembled the farm using the tools and techniques employed. almost a millennium ago.

The project was modeled on a similar effort by the organization Charpentiers sans frontières, or carpenters without borders, which built a version of Farm No.7 in 2020 to demonstrate that traditional carpentry methods are possible today when the cathedral is rebuilt. Twenty-five main trusses support the main section of the cathedral’s roof.

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington and Chancellor of the Catholic University, wore a hard hat when he joined the lifting ceremony. He first blessed the crew, then lined up with them to help hoist the 35-foot-high farm into its upright position on the lawn.

During a brief program afterwards, Cardinal Gregory expressed his gratitude to the people who came from across the country to volunteer for the project. In his prayer, he asked the gathered crowd to focus not only on the burnt down structure in Paris, but to remember the people “who make up the living church.”

The completed farm was dismantled, trucked across town, and raised in public a second time on the National Mall on August 5. It will then be placed in the National Building Museum to be exhibited for at least several weeks.

Marie Brown, Executive Director of Handshouse Studio, is pictured in an August 3, 2021 photo. In partnership with the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Catholic University of America in Washington, Handshouse organized the Farms Project Notre Dame de Paris, which rebuilt a farm like the one destroyed in a fire in April 2019 that devastated Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. (CNS Photo / Andrew Biraj, Standard Catholic)

Marie Brown was among those who watched the blaze in 2019, stunned. Even before the flames were extinguished, she was on the phone, strategizing on how to help rebuild it with others connected to Handshouse Studio, which she runs as executive director.

The Massachusetts-based educational nonprofit that organized the project in Washington is carrying out “adventurous hands-on projects … as a way to illuminate history, understand science, and perpetuate the arts,” according to its website .

Handshouse founders Rick and Laura Brown, Marie Brown’s parents, and board members, volunteers and friends set up the project. This involved working with the Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning and academic staff.

Other partners included the National Building Museum; the National Park Service; Carpenters Without Borders, who were able to obtain original design drawings of the trusses; the Historic Preservation Training Center; Preservation Maryland; North Bennet Street School, a traditional crafts and artisan training school in Boston; and La Maison Luquet d’Alsace, France, a traditional metal blacksmith.

At the university, Tonya Ohnstad, Acting Assistant Dean for Graduate Students at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, took the lead with 14 architectural students who worked on the farm in the classroom. “After a year of studying online, it was a way to put our hands together to do something,” she said.

A student, Michael Matthews, said that after working on small-scale models in a woodworking shop, he was happy to accept the physical labor of using an ax to chop logs into necessary assorted pieces.

“The first two days I was exhausted,” he said. “My back hurts.” To be fair, Matthews is a bit older than typical undergraduates, having spent 20 years in the military before enlisting in the AUC, he explained.

Student Eddie LaPointe said he enjoyed using axes to shape logs while he was learning wood framing.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I think for the students at AUC the project was important because it was a completely new experience for all of us, and it was the highlight of all that we learned in the classroom on a large scale in real life, ”said LaPointe.

Rob Duarte, a member of the Handshouse board of directors, explained that the project goes beyond simply recreating a piece of historic architecture for the sake of recreating it.

As an artist, Duarte said that understanding the how and why of the techniques used to build the cathedral farms “tells us a lot about how it was originally built, the history of the architecture, medieval architecture and in particular the roofs “.

For example, he learned that woodworkers centuries ago cut logs during certain phases of the moon specifically to accommodate levels of sap content that varied depending on the phase of the moon.

The search for precision in the project meant that down to the smallest detail, traditional techniques were followed, including that the woods were split on site using tools and methods that would have been employed by carpenters ago. 700 or 800 years.

Marie Brown told the Catholic Standard, the Archdiocese of Washington newspaper, that “there is an ongoing debate in France about whether to rebuild Notre Dame as it once was.” Part of the problem with using historical methods, she said, is that “not enough people know how.”

As with the side project in France last year, the farm-building demonstration could provide reconstructors in Paris with a model on how to use medieval techniques, Brown said. “We would be honored if that were the case. “

A final tradition concluded the farm lifting program. The youngest on the job, Nevan Carling, 20, put on climbing gear and climbed to the top, carrying a sprig of Lebanese cedar which he planted in the peak.

Carling, a preservation architecture student at the University of York, England, said he was honored to carry out the traditional ritual.


Zapor writes for the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. Maisy Sullivan contributed to this story.

Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory and a team of students, carpenters, architects and craftsmen gently pull a beam into an upright position on the lawn of the Catholic University of America Mall during a ceremony on August 3, 2021. The farm was designed to replicate the one that was destroyed when Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire in April 2019. (CNS Photo / Andrew Biraj, Catholic Standard)