The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered a debilitating fire on Monday. The Washington Post asked its readers to share their stories and memories of the famous landmark.
Their experiences and recollections were varied, but all shared a common appreciation for the treasured and historic structure that has drawn artists, worshipers and tourists to Paris for centuries. Their responses were lightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo by Leanne J. Braddock
Fort Collins, Colo.
“My very first time on an airplane was when I flew to Paris in December 1972 to begin a year abroad, studying first in Paris and then in Avignon. On my first day in Paris, I awoke jet-lagged and blurry-eyed and left our hotel by myself. I walked down some unknown street and suddenly, emerging from the pre-dawn light, rose Notre Dame. It was so unbelievably beautiful.
I have been back to Paris at least 15 times and I have never failed to stop in at Notre Dame. It centers me. I know where everything in the world is from there. My heart breaks.”
Marnee K. Evans
“This January I visited Paris for four weeks with the Notre Dame at the top of my tour list. I expected the amazing architecture, sculptures and paintings, but what I didn't expect was that my visit would help me say goodbye to my husband, Jim, who passed away in 2017. I'm not religious, but I love the rituals of religion, so for the first time in my life, I lit one of the memory candles, thanked Jim for the time we had together and promised to live whatever life I had left to the fullest.”
“Jim was a brilliant man, one of the senior editors at Computer magazine, but he died not knowing how to speak, swallow or even what his name was. Or what mine was. Early-onset Alzheimer's claimed him at 61, leaving me bereft, exhausted and soul sick. After lighting the candle, I sat in Notre Dame for a very long time thinking about all the people who had been there before me, in the same or worse condition, pleading with the universe for help, bending the knee in gratitude, crying out for justice. I don't know if prayers are ever heard or answered, but I do know that I was grateful to have been given some comfort and peace in the heart of the grand Notre Dame.”
Canal Winchester, Ohio
“I have been to Notre Dame 4 times since 1996, but the best time was sharing it with my kids last summer.
It was such a place of peace, serenity and beauty. They were amazed that something like Notre Dame could be built so long ago, with just stone and ingenuity. I know that the world will do whatever it takes to restore because Notre Dame is a part of all of us!”
“I had studied architecture in college, and of course Notre Dame. [My honeymoon in 2002] was my first trip to Europe, I ran for the doors when I saw the cathedral. I stood inside, looking up and spinning in circles, the wonder, the awe that I was standing in the very spot I had studied about. … I had no words. I stayed for hours. I still get chills.
Today I felt the same way I felt on 9/11; disbelief, profound shock and sadness. I am so thankful to the firefighters that saved her from complete ruin. I am thankful for the world realizing what the fire means for the world.”
“My 18th birthday senior French class trip to Paris. While the building and the windows were stunning, it was seeing this priest in a nook working that has stayed with me since 1980.”
Ocean Springs, Miss.
“A year ago this Thursday, my wife and I visited Paris with our three-year-old son. We had read some book and watched some movies about Paris to prepare him. On our first day in Paris, walking along the Quai de Montebello, he pointed to the sky: “Daddy! Mommy! It's Notre Dame!” Later that day, we wandered through the nave of the Cathedral, staring up at the rose windows (“It's a wose window!”) As we climbed up the bell tower, I sprinted ahead to hide little figurines of characters from Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ for my son to find along the way.”
“It was Cindy’s first time in Paris. My best friend Tim and his wife, Kellie, lived in London. Cindy did her best to convince them to meet us in Paris, but they said they couldn't swing it. Little did she know they air dropped in the night before us, and set up the ambush.
Wearing head scarves and sunglasses, they hid in the bushes outside of Notre Dame. Cindy and I got there, Tim gave me the signal, and right there, in the shadow of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, I asked her to marry me.
“Cindy started blubbering ... I may have leaked a little as well. Then Tim and Kellie sprang out of the bushes with two bottles of champagne. We popped them open on the spot, and drank the bubbly out of plastic glasses, while the other tourists and even the locals cheered and high-fived.”
“On New Years Eve 2003 when I was 7 years old, my mother took me to Paris on our first trip abroad. I was excited to see Notre Dame because I love the Disney movie. It was a magical trip because the last major thing in my life was when she adopted me. My heart breaks for Paris, I hope that it can be rebuilt.”
“Paris wasn’t my first choice. … After my wife told me it was always her dream to visit, I acquiesced. I hadn’t anticipated Notre Dame to have such an emotional impact on me.
After climbing to the top, we took time to walk around the main area. I took a moment to light a candle for my late grandmother Harriet. I stepped back when I felt the emotion seize my throat and that’s when I took this photo. Later, after seeing the photo, my sister would tell me how she lit a candle in the same area for Harriet as well. While I have never had a connection to Catholicism, I understood my grandmother’s in that moment.”
“Visiting Notre Dame was a very moving experience, it just brought an amazing sense of calm amidst the crowds of tourists and worshipers. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of seeing the Crown of Thorns. It brought me to my knees in both honor and disbelief that something such as this existed. It brought a profound renewal of my faith. “
Leanne J. Braddock
“From 1954-55, my Dad (who was in the Navy) was assigned to the American Embassy, and we lived in Paris for a year. He loved taking photos and took many of my mother and me with his Argus camera all over France. This one of my mom and me looking at Notre Dame has always been a favorite. My mother’s family emigrated from the Midi-Pyrenees in the 1600s, so we have French ancestry. As such, Notre Dame de Paris is still as much a symbol of identity as other more recent historic elements.”
Long Island, N.Y.
“While visiting Paris last fall, I had the pleasure of enjoying a nice meal, as well as a glass or two of wine, outside Notre Dame as the church bells rang. There is something mesmerizing about sitting in the shadow of centuries-old history, as well as to walk the grounds in the footsteps of those who came before us.
The cathedral truly served as a beacon for a traveler like myself while exploring the surrounding areas. While it may be rebuilt, that legacy will truly never be replicated.”
“The climb to the top was steep and long, but the view made it completely worth it. One of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen!”
“My father just showed me these incredibly cool photos taken in 1959 when he was 22 and living in Paris, just a few years after he left what was then Yugoslavia. He's the one in the white shirt. In one of them you can see the whole spire, in another, you see the transept and window — all of these were destroyed on Monday. There is also one where he and his friend climbed up to the lightning rod … as you can see, ‘security’ was an unknown concept back then!”
“We were 23-year-old newlyweds. On a rainy day [in 1992], we climbed the stairs to the tower and gazed across the rooftops of Paris. There were only a few other people at the top. In the best French I could muster, I asked another visitor if she would take a photo of us. She couldn't understand me because she, too, was an American.”
“From 2016 and my very first visit to Paris and to Notre Dame, with my wife, Miroslava, who decided to have some fun and re-enact her rendition of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. One of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen that always puts a smile on my face when I think of it.”
La Grange, Tex.
“Notre Dame was the very first stop on our family vacation celebrating the graduation of our oldest daughters. We were awed by the cathedral and Paris and the Ile de Cite. We also had a lot of fun feeding the pigeons in the plaza while they perched on our heads. The memories of both together — the history and grandeur coupled with my family being supremely silly — are precious to me.”
“My husband and two daughters and I were feeling small amid the crowds as we waited to head inside the cathedral. Once in we were immediately transformed. The hush while the organ played made each of us feel special and so fortunate to experience this remarkable place. Twelve years after our trip it was one daughter who texted me the news of the fire. ‘I am so devastated by Notre Dame.’ When I texted back ‘what happened’ my own feeling of devastation was about to start. But, she’ll be back.”
Translated from French:
“Since 1978, I visit Paris almost every year, and I’ve never missed going to Notre Dame. Here’s the last photo I took.”
“In December 2017, my wife and I took a behind-the-scenes tour with officials of the organization raising money for the restoration of the cathedral. In hindsight, we toured the very areas that are now burned and gone—below the roof but above the stone vault. Everything was wooden walkways. The clock pictured here surely must have been lost. We feel unspeakably lucky to have seen these spaces before their loss, so devastated that all this happened, and so grateful that so much was spared.”
“I went to medical school in Paris. I spent many many breaks, days and nights, on the third floor of Hôtel-Dieu ‘sur la terrasse’ drinking too many coffees, smoking too many cigarettes, especially during my endless Q5 calls at the ER. I would sit on the one bench available, never tired of what I considered the best view in Paris! I would admire the two towers and listen to the beautiful sound of the bell towers on the hour. Sometimes I would enter the church early in the morning before work to feel the serenity of the interior, observe the beauty of the rose windows, of the stained glass and maybe wish myself good luck for the hospital call. Je t’aime, Notre Dame! You survived.”
Wellington, New Zealand
“I took this photo in late November 2005, when we were living near Notre Dame. This statue, outside the front doors of the west towers, terrified my oldest son, then 9. Weeks later, our family visited the cathedral for Christmas Eve. A choir's soft hymns filled the spaces, and the building seemed to fill with majesty, peace and — paradoxically — with solitude. The Bishop of Paris called the children to the front and blessed each of them.”
Mount Shasta, Calif.
Michelle Berditschevsky submitted a poem:
Organ concert at Notre Dame de Paris
in the silent hallways of the soul
gothic arches raised in prayer
emptiness circulates among the columns
sounds streaming in colors
endless rays of light
the silent faithful return from the altar
masks of fear tighten our hearts
the congealed rose unfurls its petals
its fragrance breathes in their eyes
virgins of stone raise promises to come
among the attained geometries of the past
the organ sows a field of shimmering seeds
whence originates all possibility
Notre Dame guardian of the ultimate liberty
in this place I hear the invisible guide
who lights my way in the blind world
Mark Laurent Asselin
“Last year, I happily returned to Paris on business, flying in on a Sunday morning, too early to check in at my hotel. I set out for Notre Dame to go to Mass. It was a bitterly cold winter's day, and the cathedral wasn't much warmer than the outside. As I waited for Mass to begin, I was filled with wonder, immersed in thoughts of the vast history of this place, of my French-Canadian forebears' faith, and of my family's previous visit. I took this picture of Our Lady of Paris. When, after the fire, I saw in news photos that the statue had survived, I was moved to tears.”
“Inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame on June 6, 2017, we attended a performance of Hildegarde von Bingen's ‘Ordo Virtutum,’ a liturgical drama about the troubles of human souls torn between good and evil. The photo shows concertgoers awaiting the beginning of the performance as we looked on at the giant altar and as delicate light from the exquisite stained glass windows gently illuminated the cathedral. The music carried wonderfully inside the soaring nave, a sublime concert hall where beautiful voices, priceless art and the spiritual longings of the ages created the memory of a lifetime.”
Palm Beach Shores, Fla.
“My mother took this photo of me during one of her visits to Paris during the 20 years I lived there. I’m a Jewish American who has spent many reflective, silent moments in the Cathedral, inside it, outside it, sitting on the steps leading down to the Seine on its west side. When I was 18, when I was 20, when I was 30, when I was 40 and all the years between and after, Notre Dame, my lady, my heart. I’m not a religious person much less Catholic but she means Paris to me, and more.”
“One evening at twilight, when a setting sun turned the towers golden, hundreds of people gathered in the plaza outside the church. As jugglers, dancers, and fire-breathers performed, a musician sang Leonard Cohen's ‘Hallelujah.’ The polyglot crowd — who probably couldn't communicate with each other — all sang along in harmony. That's what the cathedral means for humanity; it's part of our common cultural heritage that unites us all in awe at its majesty.”
Translated from French: “I watch my city and I devour it like a master of time. The immensity of its blaze reveals Notre Dame’s greatness.”
The Post wants to hear your stories and memories of the famous landmark. What do you remember most about your trip to the cathedral?