“Notre-Dame is on fire”. This was the text message from a relative in Los Angeles. What? I enjoy the odd game of college football and all, but I’m not particularly interested in the Fighting Irish…
It’s strange how the mind works when you get a random piece of news. It was the witching hour chez nous when the fire broke out in that ancient gothic monument. The kids were home from school, and there was the usual feeding, bathing, bedtime routine. The outside world was completely ignored. It was not until the kids were in bed that I finally looked at my phone and turned on the TV. And then I couldn’t turn it off. I am not Catholic. And yet.
“They will rebuild,” my husband said. “We will rebuild,” says France’s President Emmanuel Macron on TV. I believe them. Because the French have done it before. This is the country that was the battleground for World War I and World War II, the French Revolution, the wars of Napoleon and many others, and still came out looking as preserved as ever.
Previous reconstructions of Monuments in France
But its beauty is not actually as unscathed as what we see today. One good example, with a similar name, is the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims where the historical French Kings were crowned. During World War I, the Cathedral of Reims was over 80% destroyed by German bombardments and fire. It took over 20 years of precision labor and a lot of money (largely funded by the Rockefeller family), but it was done. When I walked through that northern city Cathedral a few years ago during a visit to the Champagne Region, I didn’t realize the scale of the destruction until the church tour guide said so, while taking us through the church’s now fire-resistant attic. Those French artisans do good work.
There are other famous ancient buildings that have also been renovated extensively. Two that spring to mind are Windsor Castle (fire in 1992) and York Minster (fire in 1984), both places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and marvel at. The expertise is out there, as long as there is the willpower to do it. And as a French voter, I don’t have any doubts about that. The French may complain about budgets and taxes, but this is one I wouldn’t bet against.
A Monument through the ages
French law officially separates Church and State, but if there was a national Cathedral in France, it would be Notre-Dame de Paris. The heart of a city, and the soul of a country. The Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower are on the west side (practically the suburbs!), it is the Notre-Dame that is the ancient and current city center.
It is where Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor, and General Charles De Gaulle was eulogized upon his death. Victor Hugo (and Disney) made it even more famous with the tale of Esmerelda and Quasimodo. French children learned its history and its secrets in school. And French people of every age, Parisian or not, can recount a personal story about Our Lady (“Notre Dame”). Even I, as a relative newcomer, have a personal story about the Notre-Dame: we had our wedding reception less than 400 meters (437 yards) away, on a boat at the foot of the great Cathedral. This is my favorite view, rather than the front towers that people always photograph.
Journalists from around the world are now showing TV images of gathering Parisians singing “Hail Mary”. Social media everywhere is filling up with people expressing their sadness and their memories of the Great Lady. As sad as this feeling is, it makes me even more certain that she will rise again. The power of the collective. A monument to history and religion that is, in fact, a monument to Life. A monument to those who came before and those who will come after. We will walk through the Cathedral again.
Vive la France, Vive la Republique et Vive La Notre-Dame de Paris!
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