I'm not a religious person, but Notre Dame calls to me every time I'm in Paris. No matter where I stay, it's always my first stop. Even if I don't go inside, I stand in Place Jean-Paul II, the square in front, and stare at it. I've attended an Easter service there and I'm thankful that I was able to enjoy the crèche scene and the other beautiful Christmas decorations last December (see my post A Long Weekend in the City of Light). I've climbed the steps of the towers more times than I want to remember. I've looked the gargoyles in the eye and marveled at the rooftops of Paris. I introduced my then 7 year-old grandson to it. I've sat in the beautiful little park, Square Jean XXIII at the east end of the church watching children - including my grandson - play, and I've stared in amazement at the beautiful flying buttresses. I've taken more pictures of Notre Dame than any other structure.
I'll always remember exactly where I was when I learned about the fire. I had just come back to my desk from lunch. Within two minutes, I received three text messages from my family. I immediately turned on France 24 and watched in shock and disbelief as the fire spread and the spire collapsed while my heart was breaking. In a strange way, I wanted to be there, closer to it, to begin the mourning process.
l returned to Paris exactly six months after the fire. I made a small donation, so I receive updates from La Fondation du Patrimoine, an organization that supports restoration projects in France. I was nevertheless apprehensive about seeing it again. As usual, it was the first stop I made. I walked around it, as close as the public can get now, several times, and while words aren't adequate, "bittersweet" kept coming to mind. On one hand it's a sad reminder of its former glory. On the other hand, it remains proud and beautiful and a symbol of hope.
The scaffolding and cranes are hard to look at, but they represent the future.
The relics, the gargoyles and the stained glass windows were saved. The bees and hives on the roof survived. Amazingly, no one was killed. The cockerel, or rooster, that sat on the spire was found battered, but relatively in tact. In June, just two months after the fire, a service was held, albeit private and small, and the bells rang out again for the first time in September. Small but important steps.
Although criminal intent is not suspected, the exact cause of the fire is still unknown as of this writing and the cathedral is still fragile. Testing on Ile de la Cité has uncovered high levels of lead in some children. After considerable debate, the French Senate decreed that it will be rebuilt exactly as it was. Many believe that President Macron's promise of complete restoration in five years, by the 2024 summer Olympics, is unreasonable and unattainable, but Notre Dame will rise again.
My hope is to again be able to sit in the Square Jean XXIII on a beautiful spring day watching the next generation of children playing in its shadow.
Update October, 2021
It's been two years since I last visited and wrote this article. Now, two and a half years after the fire, restoration continues in earnest after a hiatus due to Covid. The biggest difference to the eye is that the Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II, the busy square in front of the cathedral, is partially open now (October 2021). It's busy with Parisians and tourists looking at the construction, reading the updates and enjoying the children's artwork on the temporary wall built on the west and north sides of the church.
The exhibition chronicles the damage from the day of the fire through the clean-up and now to the the reconstruction.
Despite the glare from this photo the day I took it, it's a chilling reminder of April 15 2019.
A drawing initiative, "Dessine-moi Notre-Dame", (Draw me Notre Dame) resulted in 6,000 drawings submitted by children age 4 - 16 from around the world. About 60 of them are displayed on the fences in front of the cathedral.
Taken from a certain angle, it's almost hard to fathom that there was so much devastation.
The goal is still to reopen by the 2024 summer Olympic games in Paris. I plan to return to Paris every year and will be among the millions who will celebrate its rebirth whenever it happens.