April 17, 2019 8:25 pm
Updated: April 18, 2019 12:11 pm

For Canadian mason, the Notre Dame Cathedral is ‘more than a building’

A Canadian carver reflects on his connection to France's iconic cathedral as officials hope restoration will last only five years.


Few people know the painstaking work it will take to restore Notre Dame de Paris to its full grandeur like John-Philippe Smith.

The assistant to Canada’s official Dominion Sculptor just finished the eight-year restoration of the West Block on Parliament Hill, which was easy by comparison.

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to have the architectural treasure reopened within five years, but even Smith concedes that it’s a lofty goal.

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“If anybody could do it quickly in five years…that would be the French but that’s pretty tight,” Smith told Global News.

The 856-year old Parisian icon was ravaged by an inferno Monday evening, destroying most of the cathedral. Smith said he was gutted and shocked when he saw what happened to the building known as the Heart of France.

READ MORE: Drone video shows fire left massive holes in roof of Notre Dame Cathedral

“I felt sick to my stomach. To be honest with you it’s, to me, more than a building at the time. I mean, I always see it as like a mountain of stone that’s impenetrable,” Smith said from the workshop he co-owns with his business partner, Danny Barber.

Smith continues to look at photos from the rubble to see the extent of the damage. Reports suggest many of the vaults in the structure have failed and he’s worried about its stability.

“If the limestone is exposed to heat of a magnitude of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, then it changes chemical composition and can become quite friable and turn into quicklime particularly if a lot of water is added to it,” Smith told Global News.

READ MORE: How Canada’s Parliament buildings are protected against fire during major renovations

Rebuilding and restoring it to its former grandeur will require an army of traditional carpenters and stone masons. Smith believes France is well-placed to fill the need with its wealth of strong and competent tradespeople. However he’s ready and willing to help.

“Professionally. I would say it’d be an honour,” said Smith. “It would just be incredible. Yeah, it would be a bit of a dream come true, to be honest.”

It’s an honour he may have never dreamed of 20 years ago when he was stuck at a desk job in hotel sales, yearning for a change.

“I found myself in a little cubicle and I said I really want to go back and do something with my hands,” Smith told Global News.

One of his friends was looking at becoming a stonemason and he followed suit, enrolling at Algonquin College, then moving on to work in Paris.

Honing his craft in southern France, Smith worked on massive carvings for the Palais-Royale in the country’s capital and the Prefecture de Paris.

“I was learning stuff every day all the time, non-stop. There’s such a knowledge base or savoir-faire there that has been there for centuries, really, and just an incredible experience,” said Smith about his time in France.

READ MORE: Notre Dame fire: ‘Priceless’ stained-glass windows may have survived destruction

Smith fell in love with the country and in 2015, he professed his love to his then-girlfriend atop France’s most iconic cathedral.

The couple went up to the balcony between the two famed towers where Smith popped the question.

“That’s where we got engaged. So it holds an important place in my heart for different reasons,” said Smith.

The 43-year-old craftsman isn’t expecting to get a call to help restore the building known as the Heart of Paris, but he would relish the opportunity because of the special place the cathedral holds in his heart.

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