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Notre Dame – a call to arms

Opinion

What extraordinary and terrible times we live in! Amidst the tragedies of Christchurch and Sri Lanka, we almost lose Notre Dame, the much-loved icon of the Catholic Church of France and of the entire world for that matter.

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As an architect who is passionate about working with historic churches and cathedrals, I never cease to be surprised at the apparent complacency of the Australian Federal and State governments when it comes to looking after our country’s historic places. What the recent tragic events in Paris highlighted more than anything for me was the depth of feeling and reverence of the French public and visitors alike observing together at first hand the destruction unfolding in Paris. And who amongst the billions of people around the world who heard the news would not have been saddened by the near loss of ‘Our Lady of Paris’?

All credit to the French firefighters for their bravery and initiative in saving the beloved cathedral, and all power to French President Emmanuel Macron for having such a positive outlook to the future of Notre Dame. While the President’s proposed five-year timescale for rebuilding the cathedral seems unrealistic at first sight, we’ve got to admire the ambition of the French. They won’t be short of help from around the world in realising their goal.

Back home in South Australia, though, we would benefit greatly from even a tiny fraction of that French ambition when it comes to saving our historic churches. One of my most cherished books, Adelaide – City of Churches, was published in 1986 and is a celebration of 150 years of church building in the city. From my observations in having carried out many fabric condition surveys of churches here, Adelaide is actually City of ‘Tired’ Churches. We have a wonderful ecclesiastical heritage which is deeply bound into the history of South Australia and yet many of our churches, and even our cathedrals, are now in poor condition.

It is interesting to observe the depth of reaction amongst people from all walks of life and backgrounds who fear the loss of a much-loved icon such as Notre Dame. It shows the visceral feelings that we all experience in the face of potential loss – perhaps that sense that we should have cherished something, or someone, more when they were around. Thankfully for Notre Dame that loss has not come to pass. Imagine, though, if all the fine churches around Adelaide were to crumble through a lack of public and government resolve to look after them. Just ask yourself how our City of Churches would look without our churches. We would have great reason to grieve their loss.

I have noted with interest the offers of international financial help from around the world to assist in the restoration of Notre Dame. While Australian Government Treasurer Josh Frydenberg initially backed the idea of our country contributing money, Scott Morrison quickly pulled the plug on the idea. If only our Prime Minister could have taken the opportunity to pledge government money to looking after Australia’s heritage churches, something which other countries, such as the UK and Germany, actively do.

Adelaide has two beautiful, and very different cathedrals. I am privileged to have been involved with restoration works to the Catholic Cathedral and love the warmth and welcome of its wonderful interior. Having carried out a fabric condition survey of the building three years ago, I understand implicitly the nature and extent of the repair and conservation works that are required there, some of which are very urgent. While the challenges faced by St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral seem on the surface minor when compared with those faced at Notre Dame, we need to cherish this South Australian spiritual and cultural icon. It is a true representation of the history of all South Australians, not just of practising Catholics.

With the upcoming elections, all Australians should canvas our politicians to provide more public money towards our ecclesiastical heritage lest we eventually lose it slowly through neglect.

Ian Hamilton is director of Arcuate Architecture.

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