Our neighborhood cathedral turns eight hundred and fifty this year.
Here on the fifth floor, with our windows open, we often listen to the bells of Notre Dame (Our Lady) from four blocks away, and had thought them lovely each time.
But what do we know?
Not being experts, we didn't know they were out of tune. After all, the last time the ten big bells were "replaced" was during the French Revolution of 1789, when they were destroyed as part of the wave of secular sentiment. Their eventual nineteenth century replacements were four chimes, which everyone except us knew were discordant.
So, to celebrate Our Lady's birthday, the church hierarchy commissioned nine new bronze bells, celebrated this last weekend amid much pomp, incense, music, and ceremony, including an appearance by Paris Archbishop Andre Armand Vingt-Trois.
Many masses were held, at which the gargantuan bells were displayed in the nave of the immense gothic cathedral. Between masses, the devout and the merely curious mingled together, inspecting, touching, and admiring the huge bronze bells, including the six-and-a-half ton bourdon (great bell) bell named for Marie, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.
Marie will be hoisted to the gothic south tower by herself, and the other eight, Jean-Marie, Maurice, Benoit-Joseph, Steven, Marcel, Denis, Anne-Genevieve and Gabriel, will be mounted in the north tower, joining another bourdon, Emmanuel, which has been there since the seventeenth century.
The installation is expected to be finished by March 23, when they will ring together for the first time just before Palm Sunday, the beginning of what Christians call Holy Week. Palm Sunday commemorates the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, where, in the following week, he was tried, sentenced, put to death on a cross on Good Friday, and then, the story continues, resurrected on Easter, in the manner of previous fertility gods like the Greek Dionysus, the Mesopotamian Tammuz, or the Egyptian Amun.
Notre Dame itself stands on ground sacred long before the Christian Era began. The Cathedral sits at what Pulitzer Prize-winning architect Allan Temko called "the organic heart of Paris." And, "the eastern end of the island [Ile de la Cite] has been a repository of idealisms since men first built a tabernacle there of branches and reeds. From the floor of the Seine upward, there must be scores of buried pre-Christian shrines: first the fragile Gallic sanctuaries of wood, and then a whole series of Roman temples in stone. Finally, high on the accumulated mound, so close to the surface that they seem incredibly recent, is a collection of Christian edifices, resting directly behind and all around Notre-Dame." (Temko, Allan, Notre-Dame of Paris. A Time Incorporated book, New York, 1962, page 11.)
It's a powerful spot. Witness last Saturday, the day the celebratory masses began, which was blustery, with intermittent hail showers. Not quite cold enough to snow, but definitely some bitter winds. Then, as if to signify that somebody up there liked what was going on in the cathedral, the sun came out just long enough to help send this message to the assembled worshipers at the exact moment the afternoon service began.