Notre-Dame in 2017. (Photo by Leah Mahan)

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Notre-Dame's roof in 2017. Two-thirds of it was destroyed in the April 15 fire. (Photo by John McMurtrie)

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The rooster, a symbol of France, atop Notre-Dame's spire in 2017. The spire collapsed on April 15, but the rooster was found in the debris. (Photo by John McMurtrie)

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Notre-Dame in 2017. (Photo by Leah Mahan)

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ESSAY, April 2019

NOTRE-DAMe: our lady, my lady

Everyone seems to have a story about Notre-Dame. Mine goes back to before I was born.

My paternal grandfather, the son of a Scotsman, met his Parisian wife-to-be while serving as an American soldier in France during World War I. He was so taken by the cathedral at the heart of Paris that he painted a mural of it at their home in New Hampshire.

After my grandparents died, my father cut out the mural, framed it, and put it in the stairwell of our suburban Boston home. I walked past it nearly every day of my youth. It was a regular reminder of where my ancestors were from, and it helped me see how old buildings can embody the spirit of our communal past.

My father was a Parisian at heart, and he would occasionally play a recording of the cathedral’s majestic bells on his big living room speakers. Their tolling offered a visceral sense of the place and of the unknowable mysteries of the divine.

I’ve been fascinated with Notre-Dame since I was a boy, loving the detail that all distances from Paris to other places in France are measured from in front of the gracefully proportioned cathedral and its grand twin towers—its square is the nation’s “point zéro.”

Notre-Dame has remained a reliable touchstone for me since then. It has always been there, as the city, like all great cities, continues to evolve and adapt around it: when I stayed with my brother, who in the early 1980s lived a block away, on the rue de la Huchette (we’d cut through the narrowest street in the city, the 6-foot-wide rue du Chat qui Pêche, to get to the river), and, a few years later, when I walked by the church every day to go to classes during my own year abroad. I’ve seen it in all sorts of weather, in all seasons, its spidery flying buttresses blanketed with snow, its rose window sparkling in the torrid August heat, with crowds of tourists out front or the square eerily quiet at night.

 

After college, when I lived and worked in Paris, I’d routinely catch glimpses of the cathedral from both the Left and Right Banks, thinking of my grandfather’s painting back home and of how this edifice had witnessed so much, from the Middle Ages through Victor Hugo’s time, and to the liberation of Paris.   

 

The last time I saw Notre-Dame was in 2017. I was with my wife and our then-10-year-olds. I heard the cathedral’s bells tolling from a couple blocks away, ‪at noon‬, and we rushed to make it in time to listen to them while standing in front of the church’s towers.

 

To me, Notre-Dame has far more than religious significance. It’s a part of my past, of my family’s past, of my patrimoine, and, of course, it’s a beloved cultural treasure for the world as a whole.

The shocking fire at Notre-Dame suddenly reminded me of the cathedral of Nantes, where my mother grew up. She lived in the city when the church was accidentally damaged by Allied bombing during World War II. The cathedral was again heavily damaged in an enormous fire in 1972. The rebuilding that followed was one of the most extensive restorations ever carried out for a French cathedral. Its nave is higher than that of Notre-Dame.

And so there is hope.

Notre-Dame is on the banks of the Seine, whose waters have witnessed even more history than any medieval structure. The river will continue to flow, and Notre-Dame, and its proud city, will live on.