Sadness and shock have gripped Winnipeggers after a devastating fire Monday tore through the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — a fire which is being compared to a blaze that ravaged the St. Boniface Cathedral more than fifty years ago.

With construction starting in 1163, Paris’s majestic Notre Dame Cathedral withstood wars and a revolution only to suffer extensive damage in the fire. 

Winnipeg historian Philippe Mailhot, who witnessed the fire at the St. Boniface Cathedral on July 22, 1968 when he was 13, finds the similarities between the two blazes striking.

“It was the pride and joy of the old city of St. Boniface, which referred to itself as the Cathedral City,” said Mailhot. “When this church was destroyed by fire it was just an emotional shock to the community.

“When I first caught a glimpse, or got wind of what was going on in Paris, that’s what immediately struck me – I saw scaffolding around Notre Dame de Paris and as soon as I saw the scaffolding my thought was ‘here we go again.’”

Like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the fire at the St. Boniface Cathedral also occurred during renovations on the building.

“When that central spire collapsed in Paris it brought back visions of the bell towers collapsing into the basilica here behind me,” said Mailhot as he stood outside the remaining façade of the St. Boniface Cathedral. “When that spire collapsed in Paris you could hear this moan from the crowd – that’s exactly what happened in 1968.”

“Again, just so many similarities between the two. Obviously, Notre Dame de Paris is like an international, iconic structure – 800-years-old – this building (the St. Boniface Cathedral) was 60-years-old.” 

Winnipegger Mariette Mulaire, the president and CEO of the World Trade Centre, an organization which works to help Manitoba companies grow their businesses internationally, has visited Paris several times and has toured the Notre Dame Cathedral.

“This is horrible for them,” said Mulaire. “That cathedral saw Paris grow.

“When I saw that, all I could think about was heartache.”

Mulaire, who’s a member of the congregation at the rebuilt St. Boniface church remembers how the 1968 fire impacted her parents – their anniversary is on July 22 and they were in Paris with friends when the fire at the St. Boniface Cathedral occurred.

“Of course they were beside themselves because that’s all people were talking about,” said Mulaire. “I remember their reaction, I remember the sadness.”

Sadness which Mulaire now sees Parisians feeling in the aftermath of this latest blaze, a blaze which has many cherishing memories of seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral.

“If you’ve been to the cathedral, you’ll never forget it,” said Mulaire. “It sticks into your mind.”