Flames rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris on Monday, April 15, 2019. AP/Thibault Camus
Photo: Thibault Camus/AP
Photo: Thibault Camus/AP

Notre Dame and the flammable nature of cathedrals

The flames that leaped from Notre Dame last week reduced some to tears and others to stunned silence.

Both the very rich and the very not-so-rich reached for their wallets. Escape artists sought refuge in a 19th century novel about the Parisian hunchback who swung from cathedral spires to save the beautiful Esmerelda.

My reaction was somewhat different. As an 850-year-old stone church with dry wooden bones blossomed into an inferno, I couldn’t help considering that, depending on variables such as moisture and humidity, white oak can burst into flame when it reaches a mere 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

My grandfather carved cathedrals. But not in stone.

And so, within certain quarters of my extended family, an open flame can send chills up the spine. We are now extreme partisans when it comes to sprinkler systems.

From 1923 to perhaps 1950, in a series of workshops throughout Cleveland, Andrew Galloway led a team of woodcarvers who furnished the interiors of hundreds – if not thousands – of high and low churches across the country. He was a Scotsman. Most of the others had roots on the European continent.

They carved angels, apostles, baptismal fonts, altars, bishop’s chairs, and lecterns, huge screens, elaborate reredos and bas reliefs. Their art, always in white oak, was dispatched and installed in churches across the country, from Chicago to New York.

Using his workshop papers, newspaper clippings, sketches and photographs, a consortium of Galloway cousins has found more than 50 churches that still bear his mark. My wife and older daughter made the latest discovery in February, within the sanctuary of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Washington D.C.

Family lore says Andrew Galloway was once dispatched to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for a renovation job, but this is something we haven’t been able to document.

Two massive Catholic projects, we suspect, were largely responsible for keeping the Galloway family – a collection of unchurched Presbyterians — fed during the Great Depression. One job was a series of carvings, some as tall as a man and others as small as a dinner platter, at the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo.

The other was the massive 28-foot reredos at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Ind., completed in November 1932.

A reredos is the screen that covers the wall behind the altar of a sanctuary. This one was more ornate than usual, carved in the “grotesque Gothic” style with spires and saints sprinkled throughout. It was impressive enough for the local newspaper to announce its completion and invite spectators to come and bear witness, before it was taken apart and shipped to Indiana.

A Dec. 4, 1932 clipping from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, showing a reredos bound for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Ind., carved by the Liturgical Arts Guild of Cleveland.

We have lost much of Andrew Galloway’s work to secularism and time. Churches come and go, along with everything inside. But cathedrals are homes to bishops and their betters, and so carry an implied guarantee of care and upkeep.

Catastrophe then becomes the chief enemy. And so, as firefighters cooled the ashes of Notre Dame in Paris, I made a few phone calls to Fort Wayne. “It does have the original wood pillar support beams, so if something happens, it would be devastating,” said Kim Martinez, the cathedral’s business manager.

But yes, Martinez said, the sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception has been retrofitted with a sprinkler system – as Notre Dame was not.

Grandfather’s reredos was last cleaned in the 1980s but remains in good shape, she said. Cathedral employees worry more about the stained glass and repairs that might become necessary in the future. The fellow who knew his art and maintained them has died. “That procedure died with him,” Martinez said.

But wood, not glass, was my post-Notre Dame worry. Andrew Galloway’s American work will be a century old in a few years, and I wondered whether oak has a finite lifespan.

Andrew Fearon is vice president and director of advocacy for the ICOMOS International Wood Committee. But that is complicated. It is easier to say that Fearon lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. His specialty is the preservation of monuments constructed of wood — churches and otherwise. The Notre Dame fire is “an opportunity to reflect on the vulnerability of these monuments,” he told me. Things like sprinkler systems, fire walls and evacuation protocols.

Those Parisian firefighters who rescued century-old artifacts from Notre Dame were working from a prepared list. “It’s very common to have an emergency program to address important artifacts in the collection,” Fearon said.

Fire is the most devastating enemy of wood, but so is water – the mother of mold and fungus. Secure roofing is a must. Then there are the bugs, he said. The city of New Orleans spends an estimated $100 million annually to battle an infestation of Formosan termites that have ravaged entire buildings in the French Quarter.

But back to my obsession – the cathedral in Fort Wayne. After Andrew Galloway finished carving that reredos, he slathered it in shellac, a finish used since the 17th century made from insects. I asked Fearon if that would be protection enough, and was relieved to hear his answer.

“These materials, even these ancient ones, have stood the test of time. They’re quite stable long-term. That could be good for hundreds of years,” Fearon said.

And how long can Andrew Galloway’s work last? “In the right environment, with the right cultural practice in place, with the right stewardship, these wooden structures can last for thousands of years. And we have record of all of that,” Fearon said.

His answer had me over the moon for a few hours. Then came the news that a 37-year-old New Jersey man had been arrested after carrying a pair of two-gallon cans filled with gasoline into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

Fire, water and insects may be the traditional enemies of wood. But more dangerous than all three are the idiots.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.