By Agnès Poirier
THOUARS, France (OSV News) — Highly skilled carpenters from four different companies are working together to rebuild the iconic Notre Dame spire before the grand reopening of the most famous European cathedral on Dec. 8, 2024. Among the craftsmen assigned to the prestigious task are two Americans: Jackson Dubois from New York and Michael Burrey from Boston.
Dubois and Burrey are members of a team of 18 craftsmen called “companions of duty” at Asselin, a family-owned company that specializes in restoring historical monuments, and one of the four companies working on the spire.
The two Americans are working with their colleagues in Thouars, a medieval town in western France, where they have three months to assemble and carve the wooden steps at the base of the spire on which the 16 statues of the apostles and the evangelists will soon stand once again.
Those statues had been removed for restoration four days before the devastating April 15, 2019, fire, which badly damaged the 850-year-old Paris cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.
Now fully restored, the 11-foot-tall statues, which were exhibited earlier this year to the public at the Cité de l’architecture, a museum of architecture in Paris, are waiting to be placed at the four cardinal corners of the spire’s base on beautifully carved wooden tiers in the fall.
Jackson Dubois, who introduces himself as “a journeyman timber framer with the timber framers’ guild of America,” has French ancestry. His last name — Dubois — means “of wood,” and his family were French Protestants who settled in New York state in the late 17th century.
Dubois told OSV News that despite his heritage, his French is “quite poor.” Still, “in the shop, we all wear heavy hearing protection anyway so we communicate through a universal carpentry language.
“Also, (translation software) is quite useful for smaller details,” Dubois said. He also makes a point to learn “one new French word useful in the shop” each day.
While Dubois does heavy timber framing, Burrey, who teaches carpentry in Boston, has been busy “making trunnels, pegs, joining up chamfers (angled edges)” — in other words “holding everything together.” Wood carving and art history is a passion for these carpenters.
Burrey, who had never traveled to France before, frequently goes on walks around Thouars and its outskirts.
“This is a medieval town; there is so much to see, admire and observe,” he said. He added that he hopes he can see the spire being raised in Paris this fall and return for the opening of the cathedral to the public Dec. 8, 2024.
“I won’t be able to work on site, as you need perfect language skills to work at such heights, but I hope to be among the crowd,” Burrey, who has never been to Paris before, told OSV News.
He recalled his parents speaking to him about their honeymoon in the French capital and their visit to the cathedral in 1958. “My grandmother was also a nurse on the French front in World War I and received a decoration from the French government for it,” he recalled.
Dubois and Burrey were both part of the Handshouse Truss project in the summer of 2021. In this effort, a total of 40 American carpenters followed original drawings and hand-built an identical replica of “truss No. 6” of Notre Dame Cathedral.
On Aug. 3, 2021, the craftsmen raised it by hand in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception adjacent to the The Catholic University of America campus. Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory joined the pulling lines that raised the truss upright. He then blessed it in a ceremony for the university community. The truss was then reconstructed on the National Mall in Washington Aug. 5, 2021.
During a visit to the capital, Philippe Villeneuve, the cathedral’s leading architect, saw their work and was so impressed that he invited volunteers to come to France and work on the reconstruction of the cathedral.
“At the time,” Dubois said, “the Handshouse project was about raising awareness, showing solidarity with France and showing that the skills still existed to rebuild the cathedral identically.”
Today, he realizes that his time as a young carpenter touring Europe and volunteering to help restore historical monuments in Poland, Estonia, Denmark and Wales, helped him acquire the necessary skills and made a difference in his application to work on the “construction site of the century,” as the French media have called Notre Dame’s reconstruction.
During a June 9 visit to Thouars, Jean-Louis Georgelin — the five-star general overseeing the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — paid tribute particularly to the two American carpenters who had joined forces with their French colleagues May 2.
In Thouars, Burrey managed to do online classes with his students from the Asselin workshop. “I wired myself and showed them via Zoom all the different stages of our work here,” he told OSV News. “They loved it.”
The tools they use to carve the wood are the same as those used by medieval builders. Like them in the past centuries, Burrey works with axes, chisels, rasps, files and gouges. But they do also incorporate modern techniques. In order to “quicken the pace of work” given the tight schedule, Burrey had to learn to use power tools for the first time to cut wood.
Working on Notre Dame’s spire has given the two Americans a great appreciation for the “creative genius” of its creator, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a 19th-century French architect who is famous for his restoration of the most prominent medieval landmarks in his country, including Notre Dame.
Burrey praised “the carved foliage, gargoyles, dragons, the proportions and the geometry of it all.” And Dubois’ admiration extends beyond the architecture to the cathedral as a whole.
“It is the celebration of humanity that it represents, which is constantly surprising and gratifying,” he said.
Agnès Poirier writes for OSV News from Paris.