Four Days Before the Notre Dame Fire
Notre Dame Cathedral called to me from the moment I arrived in Paris, April 11, 2019 (just in time for Holy Week leading up to Easter). For one reason or another, I was drawn to Our Lady of Paris every single day. After dinner on our first night my husband and I wandered, jet lagged and wired, through the rowdy streets of the Latin Quarter, to find the cathedral lit up and glowing and hardly a soul there. How lucky were we to have her all to ourselves? It was a mild spring night and I took my time drinking her in as the lights cast dramatic shadows, highlighting her angles and curves.
(I think she’s most stunning at night.)
I stood in awe, trying to appreciate every detail. A celebrated “masterpiece of Gothic architecture,” the western façade features two giant towers (223 feet high), detailed early Gothic carvings, and rows of Old Testament kings. I felt tiny in front of this towering medieval fortress where Henry VI of England was made king of France in 1431 and Napoleon was crowned emperor in 1804. Construction of the cathedral begin in the 13th century, which means Notre Dame has presided over more than 850 years of history. 850 YEARS!
My husband and I walked along the north side of the cathedral, down the dark and desolate street and around the back, where there was a park enclosed in iron gates. It felt a bit spooky at night under the gaze of menacing gargoyles, so we kept going over the Seine River and across a pedestrian bridge, discovering another side of Notre Dame. Her famous flying buttresses and pinnacles were bathed in white light and framed with the purple flowering trees of springtime. It was easy to see why Notre Dame is anchored to the Paris landscape, a sacred icon of French culture.
Three Days Before the Notre Dame Fire
The next day (our first full day in Paris) we decided we had to go back to Notre Dame for a look inside. Walking through the front door felt like stepping into a different world, as we left the bright, sunny courtyard and entered a dark, stony, cavernous church. My eyes traveled up past the giant columns, chandeliers, and arches; up the limestone walls to the second floor balcony and more arches and more columns; up the ornate stained glass windows– until they reached the ceiling (157 feet high!) and rib vaults, which are beautiful and functional, distributing the massive weight of the roof. It was a lot to take in (Notre Dame IS the largest cathedral in Paris).
Notre Dame Cathedral is probably most famous for her many stained-glass windows, including the 3 rose windows from the 13th century (a very rare piece of art from the time period). The light shines through intricate, colorful designs, featuring saints and prophets, Christ and the Virgin Mary. The Church refers to the medieval rosettes as “One of the greatest masterpieces of Christendom,” and the stained glass is a main feature drawing in 12 million visitors each year. To see the stained glass in person is to marvel at how craftsmanship can still awe us with its beauty and intricacy, even after 850 years.
Juxtaposed against the magnificent architecture and decoration, the center of the church is filled with tiny, simple wooden chairs for visitors to sit in prayer or worship. I could barely make out the altar off in the distance, draped in purple with cross covered as is done in the catholic church before Easter. My husband and I followed the crowd, winding our way around the perimeter, which is lined with themed alcoves paying homage to figures like Pope John Paul II. There is so much detail to take in. Each altar is filled with art, sculpture, and relics. I have always been fascinated by Joan of Arc and was thrilled to discover a statue of the patron saint of France inside Notre Dame. I lit a candle in her honor and thanked God for blessing me with a reforming spirit (which can sometimes feel like a burden).
As we wandered through the Notre Dame, admiring the carved walls enclosing the choir, the sound of priests singing filled the cathedral, which made our experience so very special. The ancient artworks are again beautiful and multifunctional, minimizing sound from the outside reaching the choir and depicting biblical scenes like the birth of Christ and the Last Supper.
I was fascinated to catch a glimpse inside the sacristy as the priests filed out of the choir. I could see that Notre Dame is more than a historical landmark, it’s a living church with a worshipping congregation and mass is held multiple times a day.
I left Notre Dame feeling this would be the most meaningful experience of our Paris trip– even though we were only just getting started. Little did I know what tragedy was yet to come in just 3 days…
Watching Notre Dame Burn
We were in a hurry, hustling across the city by foot. I remember it was the warmest day of our entire trip. Sometime after 6:00pm my husband and I scurried past the front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Everything looked normal — streets crowded with tourists, rush hour traffic whizzing by. We arrived at the Pompidou Center (a colossal museum of modern and contemporary art) just in time to catch sunset on the 6th floor, which boasts “the best views of Paris.” The panoramic view was spectacular, but what was that sickly billowing smoke drifting across the sky? Something was on fire, and the strange brownish-yellow color was very ominous. I scanned the horizon looking for the source of the smoke and literally gasped in horror — it was Notre Dame Cathedral! My husband and I stood, frozen in shock next to another couple, watching as flames snaked out of the spire and smoke billowed from the roof. It was truly a surreal experience.
Around 7:20pm a crowd was beginning to form as everyone inside the museum came out to see what was going on, I’m talking employees, guards, tourists, everyone! The museum was eerily empty. My husband and I wandered the Pompidou in a stupor. We knew something terrible was happening and we would never forget where we were at that very moment. Walking through the seemingly endless art exhibits, I stopped to admire a Picasso, but my heart wasn’t really in it. We left the museum, taking one last look at the dramatic sunset and smoke-filled skies.
There was just one not so little problem: we were on the wrong side of the Seine River. The police were diverting heavy big city traffic and all roads crossing the river were closed. The city was in chaos. Police and fire sirens wailed incessantly. We hopped into an Uber and watched helplessly as the driver wound up and down the streets looking for a route to the left bank. Eventually we made it back to the hotel and turned on the TV to watch the news. Crowds of Parisians gathered around Notre Dame Cathedral, praying, applauding firefighters as they worked to put out the flames. A human chain was formed to save ancient relics like the Crown of Thorns. The spire fell. The roof collapsed. More crowds filled the streets, singing Ave Maria. It felt like we were holding our breath for hours. Would Notre Dame be completely destroyed? Could the firefighters save Our Lady of Paris?
In the end, Notre Dame was badly damaged but not destroyed. The towers still stand triumphantly. Plans for restoration are being discussed and French President Emmanuel Macron pledges to rebuild the cathedral within 5 years. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to experience Notre Dame, and reminded of the impermanence of things. There are no guarantees. Nothing is forever. If there’s something you want to see or experience — don’t wait.