With deep grief and disbelief, we watched the fire that devastated Notre-Dame cathedral on Monday night. Thankfully Paris’s brave firefighters were able to extinguish the flames and save the structure from complete destruction. We are heartbroken. But we have faith that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, just as President Emmanuel Macron has vowed. International fundraising campaigns have already been announced.
Here some of our contributors share their thoughts and memories about this majestic monument. Please feel free to share your own photos and souvenirs via the comments section below or by emailing [email protected]
“I went to bed thinking about unfathomable, unspeakable loss, dreading what news the morning would bring. It now appears that though much has been lost, much remains: and so, now to the task of rebuilding. The words of the poet Yeats come to mind: “All things fall and are built again/And those that build them again are gay.” — Janet Hulstrand
“Notre-Dame has always been the heart of Paris for me. I write about French cinema, and of course it’s in films, as well as works of literature, that many first experienced the cathedral. The heart is smoldering but the building still stands and I hope it heals with the help of all of us who love the city.” — Dimitri Keramitas
“As someone who was raised Catholic, Notre-Dame, for me, was not only the ultimate church but also a symbol of Heaven on Earth. Its beauty stunned me from the time I first saw a photo of it in a French textbook, and it took my breath away when, years later, I was lucky enough to stand in front of the Notre-Dame facade, and marvel at its incomparable beauty.” — Anne McCarthy
“An entire forest was cut down 800 years ago to build the roof of Notre-Dame. Down inside the walls of our lady, that forest has fallen and is burning, and all of our tears can’t put out the fire. Out of solidarity, church bells are ringing here in the 20th district. This is one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve known in my 20-some years living in Paris.” — Allison Zinder
“A few years ago I had the precious opportunity to spend a few days in an apartment on the Seine. The building dated from the 16th century and had enormous wood beams with gigantic nails piercing through. But the most treasured part was the view. I snapped this picture (below) at one of the front windows. This is what the owners see every day as they move about their space.
Notre Dame Cathedral is more than a place of worship. It is the marker of a civilization. The pain of seeing this monument burning also symbolizes a civilization in flames. Notre Dame has a deep and powerful affect on people. That is why the agony of seeing her burn is so universal.
Culture and the monuments they leave behind provide us with more than awesome beauty; they give us a sense of solidity, of place and time; of where we have been, who we are, and where we may be going.
This is a stark reminder for everyone in all countries not to neglect their cultural treasures, their markers.” –Dorothy Garabedian
“Notre Dame Cathedral represents the beating heart of Paris. A spiritual refuge seeped in centuries-old history, where everyone is welcome and accepted. Whenever I pass by on my way to the left bank, I stop and stare in admiration, or enter for a moment of overwhelming peace. My favorite moments of all are spent on the river’s edge of Île Saint Louis, gazing up at this majestic beauty, Our Lady of Paris.” — Kasia Dietz
“Notre-Dame is my Paris touchstone, a ritual. I arrive, put down my bags in the hotel, freshen up a bit and head to the Cathedral right away. All my hotels have to be within walking distance. It’s the center of my stay since 1972, my first trip to Paris. Like an old friend, she greets me and says ‘Bonjour, Beth. Welcome back.‘ ” — Beth Gersh-Nesic
“It’s difficult to write with a devastated heart, but I want to say how my feelings for Notre-Dame have changed over the years from a sense of awe at my first meeting half a lifetime ago, overwhelmed by her age and grandeur, to a feeling of warm intimacy. She has always been there, like a magnificent elderly relative, who, you realize has suffered much, but still stands calmly amid the changes all around her. Her large Gothic heart and her fine strong bones have remained. Now that she has been so badly injured, I can only hope she will be lovingly looked after.” — Patti Miller
“Sometimes, when you walk by a place often, it can become just a blur of background scenery. Not so with Notre-Dame. I pass it every day on my way home to the Ile St Louis. It has never—ever— been just part of the scenery. I always pause—to look again. Inspired by its grandeur. The articulated carving. The ingenuity of flying buttresses. Its reflections on the nighttime Seine. The rose windows, beautiful from inside and out. The wild and weird gargoyles. The sound of its bells. Its place in history.
It is the heart of Paris.” — Meredith Mullins
“It was only a few minutes earlier that I had been admiring a picture of that very cathedral, framed beautifully by cherry blossom, when I heard the news that it was up in flames. With eerie synchronicity, it had just popped up on my Instagram feed. However, thanks to its official status as the most popular landmark in Paris, the generosity of the public will hopefully play a part in restoring it to its former glory.” — Chloe Govan
“I grew up with an etching of the Notre-Dame on my polka-dotted kitchen wall. It was a gift from my cousin Linda. At the time, she was an exchange student in Paris. Immediately after my dad’s installation, I was smitten. Bill B. was a big believer in the Clean Plate Club, so this Francophile in the making and the souvenir artwork spent many an overextended dinner alone together—especially during brussels sprouts nights.
I’m still smitten. Did you know the bells have names?
So, today, after riding the non-stop wave of tears, I reached for my well-loved copy of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.
Ahead of the curve
You see, we have writer and historic preservation activist Victor Hugo to thank for jump-starting a sightseeing frenzy, along with the much-needed renovation that followed the publication of his very first novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, in 1831 (released in English in 1833 as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, much to the author’s dismay).
Here’s one of my favorite passages, penned by the forward-thinking Monsieur Hugo:
Without a doubt the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is, even today, a majestic and sublime edifice. Though it has preserved a noble mien in aging, it is difficult to suppress feelings of sorrow and indignation at the countless injuries and mutilations which time and man have wrought upon this venerable monument between the time of Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, and that of Phillip-Augustus, who laid its last.
On the face of this old queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle you also find a scar.
According to recent news reports, the twin bell towers and the Portal of Judgment on the Western façade appeared to have been saved. Today I’m thinking of the fire fighters. Thank you. Our absolutely fabulous queen, Notre Dame, will survive.
— Theadora Brack
“Watching this evening the unbelievable footage of Notre-Dame in flames has left me drained and heartsick. Six months ago I was sitting reading in the gardens of Notre-Dame and even after more than 50 years of seeing her, walking past and visiting her on a regular basis, I still knew absolutely at that moment how lucky I was to be sitting there in her shadow. I am not religious. Notre-Dame’s beauty and spirituality move me anyway. Two years ago I was witness to the Easter mass. I am so glad now that I went if even just as a spectator. Like anyone who has ever visited or lived in Paris, I have photos of Notre-Dame from every angle in every light in every season. She was impossible not to capture in film again and again compulsively.
Notre-Dame is the very heart of Paris– broken last night, but hearts do mend and however long that may take, Notre-Dame will once more be whole again. My thoughts are with Parisians and all of France and all those who love Notre-Dame de Paris. Bon courage.”
— Marilyn Brouwer
“I started to cry when I saw the subdued crowd of Parisians jointly singing Je vous salue Marie. An ancient prayer for an ancient church. Notre-Dame de Paris is the city’s center – Paris’s raison d’être – or a least one of my reasons for returning to Paris. For me, Notre-Dame encapsulates the awe I felt for the entire city as a 20-something visiting Paris for the first time. As a young mother, I introduced my son to the magnificent lady from the deck of a bateau-mouche.
In more recent years, Notre-Dame de Paris has been alongside me in my studies of Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo and of course the architecture of the Gothic cathedral. Most recently in the autumn of 2018, the gardens at Notre-Dame were a quiet place where a weary solo traveler could rest her feet like so many pilgrims before her. Ironically, Notre-Dame survived the desecration of the French Revolution and is in no small part the reason for the fragile truce that spared Paris during the Second World War. As her 21st-century caretakers, we have let her down.
Before I turned my back to her last Fall before being enveloped in the crowds on Boulevard Saint-Michel, I took a mindful second look at the cathedral and thought “Bye-bye Lady, I won’t be seeing you again for a while.” I didn’t know how true these thoughts would be.” — Hazel Smith
“As a schoolgirl I was inspired to discover this gothic cathedral by Victor Hugo’s epic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It’s always breathtaking to walk in and breathe nine centuries of Notre-Dame – Our Lady. It’s awesome admiring the beauty of the magnificent medieval stained glass windows, listening to an organ concert, admiring Paris from the top. I feel love, peace, serenity, there’s no denomination – I’m not Catholic but here’s a place to go where I forget the horrors of the outside world. Onwards.” — Margaret Kemp
“My grandparents’ first trip to Paris and every one after that always included stops at the storied cathedral. I continue the journey that they started and have spent hundreds of hours inside, soaking up every detail, documenting all of it. Last summer in an effort to learn even more, I took an online course through Yale focusing on the great Gothic cathedral. Hours were spent with oversized printouts marking down what each sculpture symbolized on the front façade, the Gothic structure and restorations. It was one of the best things I have ever done and gave me even deeper insights of a building that I have come to love so much. Today it feels like I am losing a loved one, something that I know intimately, but Notre-Dame will be reborn from the ashes.” — Claudine Hemingway
Reflections by Roni Beth Tower
“Notre Dame, 1960. When I was 16 years old, my father introduced me to my first Cathedral, complete with Gothic architecture, a rose window sparkling in the June sunlight, and my own wonder that such a structure could have been constructed during what I had studied in high school as “The Middle Ages”. The sacrifices to build it, the comfort brought to people by a place of such beauty; it stood as a testimonial to hope and transcendence.
1963. When a student at the Sorbonne, I would cross Pont St. Michel following classes, enter the sacred space – no lines back then – and sit mesmerized by the Latin mass, the sounds and intonation, the incense, the ritual, all bringing solace to this homeless Jewish American college soon-to-be-senior, who felt embraced by dignity, predictability, and compassion as I sat inside the Cathedral’s stones.
1996. On my return to Paris, Notre-Dame greeted me like an old friend, her marker for 0 kilometers – the center of the city – sitting proudly on her esplanade. The following summer, as we drove my lover and future husband’s converted barge upstream, along her southern walls, I gasped at the Cathedral’s endurance, angles, evolution, each facet offering a story of creativity, dedication, evolution and inspiration.
1998. Living in Paris, I found that the Latin mass I had learned to love was still being recited at Notre-Dame. Like the Hebrew of the Jewish prayers of my childhood, the ancient language carried me mystically to a place of broader perspective.
2011. When we brought our oldest grandchild to Paris, days following her twelfth birthday and the death of her beloved Opah, she found meaning in lighting candles in his memory after choosing her favorite chapel to place for them. Only after did we climb the towers.
2013. Her brother loved mimicking the protective gargoyles as we made our way across the Towers. He marveled at the lines of tourists queued for entry into the Cathedral, at the rooftops stretching across the Latin quarter, at the gardens with their footbridge across to the Ile Saint Louis.
As the years passed, entry lines grew longer and longer as the faithful and curious continued to make pilgrimages to Notre-Dame. I traded my allegiance to a synagogue in the XVIème and concerts at Sainte Chapelle, secure in the belief that Notre-Dame would always be there, should I again need its unique reassurance and comfort. But the last night of our long March visit this year, we settled ourselves into seats at a window table on the upper floor of Le Petit Châtelet, directly facing the Cathedral, and toasted the symbol of so much that is eternal in Paris.” — Roni Beth Tower
Memories and Regrets by Michele Kurlander
“I ignored my tax return for great swaths of time on that heartrending Monday, mesmerized and horrified by the images of conflagration on the tv screen – finally breaking into tears as the spire, filled with roiling orange flames, slowly leaned over and fell to the ground. Friends, knowing my love of Paris, kept texting “Michele, did you see?” Yes! Over and over as CNN replayed it.
Thankfully, she is not really gone. The structure held. They will rebuild. I just need to wait. (I’m not very good at waiting.)
I am left with mixed emotions.
Regret? Yes, indeed. Much self flagellation. I have not entered her doors for years. I was turned off by the snaking lines of camera-laden tourists outside, by the coils of electrical cords within, by the crowds of visitors and lines at the gift shop- by the very existence of a gift shop. I chose to experience the grandeur of Our Lady by beholding the flying buttresses and spire from a number of favorite vantage points.
But what glorious views! I sometimes felt nearly alone since so few photos are taken from some of the places where I so often pause to look at her. This is what I will truly miss – communing with Her from some of my special places. My most loved view of Notre Dame is found by descending the stairs to the quay and walking east towards the sculpture gardens and the Jardin des Plantes. I have always turned en route to admire the glory of Notre Dame as she sat hunched within the green of a garden, her spire pushing into a blue sky – and slowly as I walked away from her, she became smaller and somehow more beautiful as she was framed within the curved arches of the bridges above me.
Another fond memory: I often have entered Paris by exiting the RER at St Michel and having an omelet and a drink at Café Panis on Quai Montebello – before even depositing my bags at my hotel or Airbnb apartment. Sitting in the window of Café Panis, I can start my Paris sojourn by saying hello to Notre Dame as I sip and breathe deeply and glory at just being there.
Yet another memory: I have often taken a book or my journal to the little park called Square Rene Viviani that lies on Quai Montebello between Café Panis and Shakespeare and Company, backs up on the north wall of the ancient Eglise St Julien le Pauvre, and features paths, benches, lush foliage, the oldest tree in Paris and a lovely view of Notre Dame without any tourists or lines or guitar players or acrobats in sight – just the Lady herself through the green, across what I like to call a sliver of the Seine.
There is also the view from the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, hidden a level down from the street, along the Seine, just across the street from the park behind Notre Dame. From this quiet, emotionally laden memorial, I have often stood just to the west on its green lawn and contemplated Notre Dame and its buttresses and its spire reaching for the sky.” — Michele Kurlander
Lead photo credit : Notre-Dame cathedral. Photo credit: Paris Info tourist office/ cmjn