The Cathedral is Not the Church

by Rose Marie Berger


The Notre Dame Cathedral reflected in the sunglasses of a Parisian.

Less than a day after fire destroyed much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, donations have flooded in to fund the rebuilding of the iconic 850-year-old church and world treasure — including nearly $1 billion just from a handful of France’s financial elites and corporations.

As flames consumed 900-year-old oak latticework on Monday, Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris fire brigade, ran into the church to rescue the Blessed Sacrament held in reserve in the tabernacle. Along with others, he formed a human chain to rescue priceless works of art, including the crown of thorns believed to be worn by Jesus.

In our Holy Week pilgrimage to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, we can meditate on his crown of thorns and the sacred Eucharist redeemed from ashes.

But we must also look deeper. The magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is indeed a monument of living praise in stone, glass, and wood. It sits on the birthplace of Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It rises as a work of art built by human hands to the greater glory of God.

But, glorious as it is, the cathedral is not the church.

The church is not the architecture, artwork, artifacts, or sacred objects. 

The church is the living body of Christ found in the wounded, migrant, friendless, and exhausted who live on the streets of Paris. That is the church that Our Lady, Notre Dame, folds into her cloak.

Only in reaching out to these abandoned ones do we rescue what is most sacred. Only in rebuilding this incarnate church can Notre Dame be restored.

To rebuild Notre Dame requires reweaving France’s communal heart and making a human chain to rescue those lost and left behind.

To rebuild Notre Dame calls for a social and spiritual project that even the most secular French can support.


Makeshift refugee camp near the Stalingrad metro station in Paris, France.

Can the wealthy of the world support a Notre Dame project that starts in each French neighborhood, each European neighborhood, each American neighborhood? Can each neighborhood commit to providing housing, healthcare, and friendship to migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers living on the streets, living under threat of legal persecution?

Remember, the church is not the building.

For each dollar donated to raise Notre Dame once again, let 2 dollars be donated to bring the body of Christ into a loving family. 

The new Notre Dame must be both an architectural project and a social process that sparks love for the “other,” treasuring the gifts of the other in our hearts, as Our Lady did (Luke 2:19).

The new Notre Dame – both project and process – must make it easier for the overfed to have a meal with the underfed, for the stressed and overpaid to rest with the exhausted and overworked, for the children of wealth and the children of poverty to plant vegetables together and play in a fountain and fly kites. The new Notre Dame must have open green spaces where the Earth and Creation can sprout forth.

Remember, the church is not the building. 

The church is the people of God – believers and nonbelievers, French and foreign, housed and homeless, artisans and CEOs – working together to rebuild France’s communal life.

We will know that Notre Dame is rebuilt when there is housing for the more than 16,000 people, primarily war and economic refugees, living in 497 informal settlements in France. One third of whom are located in Greater Paris.

Out of these ashes a new magnificent cathedral can be built that truly reflects the glory of God.–Rose Marie Berger

Rose Marie Berger, author of Bending the Arch: Poems, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Hamlet, North Carolina (Luke 16:19-31)

That man dressed fine as Sunday every day
of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products
poultry processors. Had a plant right here
in town. Every morning, early, the workers
would line up at the front gates–mostly women,
mostly black folk, some with joints froze up from
working those machines, some with emphysema
from working the pantyhose factory
down the road, but all wanting their babies
to eat half as good as what sat on that
rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time.
Well, he got to worrying that some folks
might start stealing his chicken parts,
so he took to locking up the factory
doors once the morning shift was in place. The
time came when a hydraulic line blew on
one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke
filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of
the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon
dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most
folks died at the south end of the building
near the walk-in freezer. They had headed
for the exit, but it was locked. Then they
were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some
died down at the loading dock. Piled up on
each other trying to get through the small
hole between the wall and the truck blocking
the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.
She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She
was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall,
who’d only worked chicken a few months. She
was dead. And Margaret Banks. When
they brought her out, you could already
tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25
who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant
said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies
were white or black on account of the smoke; but the
angels, who pay no mind to color, came
and carried every single one of them
up into the arms of Abraham.
Now, all of this happened the day after
Labor Day. And even though Imperial
didn’t allow no organizing in its
plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers
Union still sent dresses (and suits for the
men) to use as burying clothes. At the
First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord,
Lord,” maybe because in the confusion
they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery
time’s been over! How much longer is it
going on?” To which there was just no good
answer. What all happened to the rich man
was never much covered in the newspapers,
but the actual truth is
his story’s been told before.

Rose Marie Berger

On September 3, 1991, a fire swept through the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five workers were killed and 55 injured, trapped behind locked fire doors. In 11 years of operation, the plant had never received a safety inspection. Investigators believe a safety inspection might have prevented the disaster. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Emmett Roe had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months, less than a year for each person he killed. Roe became eligible for parole in March 1994, and was released just under four years into his sentence.

(Lazarus and the Rich Man by Rose Marie Berger first appeared in Sojourners magazine, August-September 1992)

For more on the Hamlet, N.C., industrial fire, read A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow by Lawrence Naumoff.

See also the University of Virginia “Labor Disasters” web site.