The fire that ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week left people across the world shocked. Many people, however, took the fire as an opportunity to revisit their fond memories of the iconic church.
Diane Bertrand felt a mixture of shock and sadness when she heard that Notre Dame was burning. She got separate calls, from her mother, sister and her husband alerting her of the blaze. Bertrand, a retired French teacher for Billings high schools, has visited the cathedral nine times over the past 30 years.
Bertrand mostly taught at Skyview High School and took students on school trips to Paris. Every time she’d make sure they went to Notre Dame. She’d always see something new in the massive church.
“It’s always the same feeling when I see it,” she said. “The stain glass windows were absolutely breathtaking. The rose windows were my all-time favorite.”
Bertrand got to live vicariously through her students, too.
“I took students on tours and that was always their most favorite thing was to go in Notre Dame and the amazingness of it, the grandeur, the beauty.
As many have said, not only is the cathedral an iconic part of the Parisian landscape, but a significant place for Catholics. Betrand felt that connection deeply, and lamented the blaze happened at the beginning of Holy Week.
“With all the masses they had planned for Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter vigil,” she said. “A lot of people go to France during this time so they can be there to attend mass at Notre Dame.”
Seeing the cathedral burn brought up nostalgic feelings for Jane McFadyen, too. The U.K. native spent a large portion of her lifetime in Paris. Now, she lives in Billings.
For her the Notre Dame was as was a familiar sight, and much of Monday was spent thinking about her Parisian childhood.
“It was funny how that news eclipsed all the news. All the news seems to be political, but it stopped and everyone was focused on this building of which so many people tend to have a relationship with,” she said.
Unlike many who felt desolated by the fire that collapsed the roof, McFadyen looked at the rebuilding process with enthusiasm.
“The French are very cultured, creative people and I would expect them to not only restore it but to improve on it. Possibly even artistically or creatively,” she said.
McFadyen is even anticipating a little je nais se quoi during the rebuilding process, that indefinable quality that makes something distinct and attractive.
“Like the Louvre, they’ll add a twist,” she said.
Karli Kusler, currently visiting Paris, was having dinner when she heard about the fire. On the way to dinner she and her family had spotted smoke on the skyline but didn’t think much of it.
Later that evening Kusler saw the decimation first hand.
“The atmosphere (of Paris) wasn’t noticeably different until we were on our way home,” she said. “There were masses of people walking towards Notre Dame. ... I think a lot of people were in shock.”
Kusler said the fire didn’t affect her as much as others as she's not religious. Losing the long history of the building was horrible, but Kusler couldn't help but put the loss of the building in a perspective she, as an Montana native, could understand.
“As a white American it’s tough to grasp the significance of this because we don’t have that kind of multifaceted historic monument in the United States," she said. "However, Native Americans absolutely have history that extends that far and the United States has personally set their 'Notre Dames' on fire for hundreds of years with immense more destruction. So maybe that puts this in perspective for me a bit.”
Through it all, Kusler found the positive of the situation.
“(The fire) sparked a surge of $1.8 million in donations to the black churches in Louisiana that were intentionally set on fire by a suspected white supremacist,” she said.
Ann Lohof was also in Paris when the fire broke out. Born in Billings, Lohof has lived in Paris since 1994. When she left work on Monday she looked toward the spire of the cathedral, the sight was unnerving, she said.
“When I looked, the flames were visible in the steeple, which I hadn't seen before in the news videos,” she said. “I saw the steeple collapse a few minutes later, which made me feel a loss of hope — when the structure is still there, you think that maybe it can be saved, but when it collapses the level of disaster becomes very clear.”
She left work and stopped to watch the cathedral burn from across the River Seine.
“I went to a bridge across the Seine a bit further away from the cathedral, to watch and to be around other people. Most were just stunned,” she said. “A few were crying.”
Parisians felt a deep sense of loss, she thinks. On Monday night Lohof observed many people singing hymns near the cathedral.
“Parisians feel that this building belongs to them, even if it doesn't have religious significance for them personally,” she said.
Lindsay Blackburn visited Notre Dame in 2001 while studying abroad in college. She was instantly struck by architecture and stained glass windows. When the Billings native heard about the fire on Monday her heart sank, she said.
Everyone around the world felt connected to the building, she thinks. Not only do millions of people visit the place, but many kids were raised with the cathedral's gargoyles, thanks to Disney's movie adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“Americans feel connected to Europe because many of us were taught from a heavily Eurocentric framework in school and have European heritages. At the same time, there are losses right here in our own backyard to grieve,” she said. Blackburn was speaking of fires set a three historically black churches in Louisiana in the past few weeks.
“When our lack of proper attention to these hate crimes was called out (in the wake of the collective grief over the fire at Notre Dame), many Americans responded appropriately and generously,” she said. “I've been encouraged to see an outpouring of donations to rebuild these churches. We can care and lament for both Paris and St. Landry Parish, simultaneously.”
A loss of any religious center is something to mourn.
“I'm sad for Parisians and Christians around the globe, as we lost portions of this magnificent cathedral on the first day of Holy Week,” she said.