Catholic University raises replica of Notre-Dame de Paris truss

Notre Dame truss A group of volunteers stand in front of a Notre-Dame Cathedral truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. | Patrick G. Ryan

A full-scale replica of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss creaked gently in the morning sun as dozens of students and volunteers pulled on ropes to raise it above the lawn of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The truss — a roof support — went up just hours before Philippe Villeneuve and Rémi Fromont, chief architects leading the restoration of the historic cathedral, visited the U.S. for the first time since a fire engulfed the medieval church in 2019. 

The architects’ first stop, the university said, would be to see the truss.

The raising was no small feat: the 45-foot-wide by 35-foot-high white oak structure weighs 8,100 pounds. Its creation, the university noted, is also remarkable. Produced using traditional, 800-year-old methods, the hand-hewn truss was created using blueprints of the original.

Together with the educational nonprofit Handshouse Studio and other groups, the university’s School of Architecture and Planning crafted the truss during a 10-day workshop last year as part of the Notre-Dame de Paris Truss Project. A team of timber framers, carpenters, faculty, and students followed French protocol from the Middle Ages in everything from timber harvesting and tools to assembly.

“It’s my understanding that we’re enacting the building and the utilization of a truss that was made with authentic materials and in an authentic construction fashion when the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was raised in the 12th century,” the university’s president, Peter Kilpatrick, told CNA.

While the creators originally dreamed of gifting the truss to the cathedral, now they are hoping to donate their talents instead — and travel to Paris.

“We’ll be sending American students and craftsmen over there to work with their materials and their supplies,” Sam Merklein, a graduate student studying architecture who is involved with the truss project, told CNA.

Architecture students Juan Soto, Andrew Masison, and Sam Merklein helped build a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica that was raised at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Katie Yoder/CNA
Architecture students Juan Soto, Andrew Masison, and Sam Merklein helped build a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica that was raised at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Katie Yoder/CNA

In the meantime, the truss has stood on the National Mall — between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol — as well as inside the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta.

Monday marked its fifth exhibition.

Merklein, a 23-year-old from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, called the effort a “symbol of solidarity, from the U.S. to offer to the French their condolences.”

Opening the day with prayer, Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre, New York, a university trustee, called on the intercession of French saints for the rebuilding of not only the cathedral but also the Catholic Church in France.

“This morning we pray in solidarity with Parisians and people around the world who treasure Notre Dame Cathedral’s beautiful expression of the Catholic faith and the Catholic soul in art, architecture, liturgy, and history,” Barres said.

Kilpatrick, together with Andre Finot, the chief communications officer for the cathedral, attended the raising. Afterward, following an ancient tradition, one of the builders scaled the truss to fix a whetting bush, or evergreen, to the top in celebration.

A builder scales the Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica to fix a whetting bush, or evergreen, to the top in celebration at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Patrick G. Ryan
A builder scales the Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica to fix a whetting bush, or evergreen, to the top in celebration at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Patrick G. Ryan

Juan Soto, 24, from Ashburn, Virginia, called the truss’ placement on the university lawn, next to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a “beautiful sight.”

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“We all worked on this hands-on, we got to hew the logs as they came in last summer,” said Soto, an architecture student who graduated earlier this year. 

With this project, Kilpatrick said that he hopes that these students come away with a new curiosity. He revealed that he attended Mass at the cathedral in Paris as a young assistant professor during his first trip to France in 1984. 

He explained, today, why he is excited about the truss project.

Catholic University of America President Peter Kilpatrick attends the raising of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Katie Yoder/CNA
Catholic University of America President Peter Kilpatrick attends the raising of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Katie Yoder/CNA

“It represents one of the most important elements of our university education, and that is that we believe in the integration of the disciplines,” he told CNA. “So knowledge is not isolated in a discipline, it’s not isolated in a time or chronology. Knowledge is part of human understanding of God’s truth for the world and so when you integrate something like history and architecture and our faith and human culture — when you integrate all those things — you’re helping our students and our community understand the continuity of knowledge and the relationship between the disciplines.”

Attorney Trevor O. Resurreccion, 43, traveled from Santa Ana, California, to attend the raising. A donor to the project, he attended the university’s architecture school as an undergraduate.

“I jumped at the opportunity and I thought, what a great way to not only support the school and the students here but also a project that is important — not just for Catholic University, but also for people around the world and, of course, Paris,” he told CNA. 

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Attorney Trevor O. Resurreccion, 43, traveled from Santa Ana, California, to attend the raising of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. A donor of the project, he formerly attended the university’s architecture school as an undergraduate. Katie Yoder/CNA
Attorney Trevor O. Resurreccion, 43, traveled from Santa Ana, California, to attend the raising of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. A donor of the project, he formerly attended the university’s architecture school as an undergraduate. Katie Yoder/CNA

Afterward, the cathedral’s Finot, representatives from Handshouse Studio, and Catholic University faculty participated in a panel discussion. The group identified two carpenters present who will help with the efforts to help rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris — after making connections through the truss project.

Marie Brown, executive director of Handshouse Studio, highlighted the beauty of building something the way it was originally fashioned, whether with the truss replica or with the cathedral itself.

“By remaking something in the method it was originally made, the process of that maker, the experience of that maker, is actually embodied,” she said. “The person now picks up the tool — they might not even be familiar with it if they’re a beginner, they might be next to a person who is an expert and get to watch and learn. But then their actual embodiment of that action gets you into the mind of the maker.”

She added: “It suddenly brings out this whole understanding of history in a way that’s so personal.”

A group of students and volunteers pose in front of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Patrick G. Ryan
A group of students and volunteers pose in front of a Notre-Dame de Paris truss replica at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2022. Patrick G. Ryan