Notre Dame: “It was important to come and reflect”

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In the French capital, tourists and Parisians alike reflect on the fire damage to the famous Notre Dame cathedral, but the future seems bright. Its spires may have crumbled but its fame and legacy will live on. A first-hand report from Paris two days after the fire:

Stepping off the train in Paris this Wednesday, two days after the iconic Notre Dame de Paris cathedral was devastated by a terrible fire, I wondered what the first reference to the disaster would be on my journey from the train station to the scene of the accident. The front page of a free newspaper I picked up in the Métro station read ‘Notre-Dame du Cœur, The Lady of our Heart.’ Inside were pictures of the many Parisians and tourists who had made a similar journey to mine; to the banks of the Seine to assess the damage, pay their respects, and to reflect on the future of one of the most visited landmarks in Paris.

Three things stood out to me as I spent the afternoon walking the river banks, and talking to my fellow onlookers:

People look on to the Cathedral from the river banks
On the banks of the Seine, everyone is looking in the same direction.
Credit: Tom Packer

Our Lady of Paris – and of so much more

As one Parisienne woman told me, looking on the side of the spire-less and burnt building, “I’m here because it’s an important symbol of Paris.” Standing on the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine, the Cathedral is a natural focal point of the city. But just as the significance and influence of the French capital extend far beyond its ring-road, the loss of such a monument was felt across the country. On the night of the disaster, some 300 miles away in the city of Lyon, I sat with my French flatmates and watched in horror with them as the spectacular building burned. “It was sad not just for France but for the whole world,” explained another bystander. There is a sense of collective loss in the air as I walk slowly by the crumbled structure; even some American tourists, visiting from Boston, MA, tell me that they are terribly sad, “not just for the French, but for everyone.” In Paris, in France and seemingly beyond (looking especially at the world’s front pages this Tuesday) it seems something special has been lost.

The world's media gather on a bridge east of the Cathedral.
The world’s media gather on a bridge east of the Cathedral.
Credit: Tom Packer

The parishioners of Notre Dame

In the media frenzy surrounding the fire and much talk of Notre Dame’s far-reaching significance, it is important to remember that this Cathedral has parishioners. Explaining that she wasn’t herself a Catholic, an elderly lady told me:

I am here out of respect for the believers who have lost something special, their place of worship.

The church and state are separate in France, and with all the talk of symbols of Paris and of the Republic, it is strangely easy to forget that a Cathedral is still a religious building. I was reminded by this statement that, at the smaller and more personal end of the impact-scale, there are people who attend services every week at Notre Dame. This community had to watch as their place of worship succumbed to the flames. Fortunately, we have since heard that a temporary wooden structure will be built in the Cathedral grounds to house the parishioners for now.

Flowers are left on a bridge with the Cathedral in the background
Credit: Tom Packer

Just another chapter…

Finally, despite the tragedy of the fire, I am in no way worried for the future of the Cathedral. Some of the building is still standing, and besides, historians reckon this isn’t the first time that parts of Notre Dame have had to be rebuilt due to fire damage. With a building as famous as the Parisian cathedral, the fire will perhaps only add to its fame, especially if the amount of tourists I saw taking selfies with the building’s ruins is anything to go by…

One of the American tourists I met explained that she had not seen the Notre Dame before the fire but that it was, “still a special building.” She wasn’t disappointed to have not seen the grand spires but instead seemed content to see the Church in this new chapter of its history. We discussed as the sun shone down on the banks of the Seine, that a hundred years from now, the fire will have become just another part of the Cathedral’s long and famous history.

It would take more than a fire to destroy the Notre Dame, at least in the minds of ‘her’ parishioners, Parisians and tourists alike. So, to use imagery most appropriate for a Church, the Notre Dame will soon be resurrected.

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French and Linguistics student currently studying in Lyon, France.

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