Memories Of Notre Dame

April 17, 2019 GMT

PARIS — I remember my first time — my first visit to Notre Dame de Paris. I was 17 years old, a student at Pottsville Area High School, travelling with other students and with Mrs. Alice Ney, our courageous chaperone. We were fearless, sneaky. We did not stay with the group. With my friend Jane Dolbin, who died in 2008, we wandered off and went shopping on Boulevard Saint Michel. We each bought a new dress and put it on in the boutique. Then we proudly marched down the boulevard and crossed the Seine to Notre Dame, paying a couple of francs to climb the steps to the northern tower, the one that, Monday night, was touched by the flames at the cathedral’s heart. Once at the top, we had a panorama of the rooftops of Paris that took our breath away. The sun was shining, a strong wind was blowing, but little did it matter. We had a magnificent view of the famous spire of the cathedral, the one that fell a few minutes before 8 p.m. Monday. We also looked down on the flying buttresses that withstood the fire and on the lead roof, held up by “the forest,” an immense wooden frame made of oak beams dating back to the cathedral’s construction in the 12th and 13th centuries. The fire began in “the forest,” beneath the eaves. The lead roof melted, causing some parts of the vaulted stone ceiling of the transept to fall. Standing atop Notre Dame nearly 50 years ago, wearing my Parisian minidress, I was unaware the wind had lifted it up around my waist, exposing my American panties to a delighted security guard. My friends knew; they did not tell me. That is my first memory of Notre Dame de Paris. It may seem trivial, too personal, in light of the destruction wrought in a few hours to a religious and historical monument that has withstood wars and revolutions for more than eight centuries. Yet, I’d go so far to say that Notre Dame de Paris, My Lady, is a personal part of my life, a friend whose door is always open, who, since my first trip to France, has welcomed me hundreds of time. She would smile and understand two teenagers who, on their first trip to Paris, wanted more than anything else to look like the elegant Parisians who surrounded them in the streets. These days, whenever I can, I cross the Seine on foot, just so I can have a look at her. No matter what the weather or season, she looks beautiful, day or night, a great lady promising comfort and intercession to all who open their hearts to her. But “these days” are now the past. At the time I write, there has not yet been an estimate of the damage. For example, it is not yet possible to approach the church’s magnificent organ, one of the finest in the world, rebuilt over time but still containing pipes from the Middle Ages, capable of “singing” like a choir of angels or creating the ominous rumble of approaching thunder. No one can say what state they are in today, nor can anyone know if, upon reconstruction, the church will regain its exceptional acoustics. Paris, France, the world is in mourning for a beloved monument and a spiritual beacon, today covered with ash and exposed to more damage by falling rain entering through the roof. In one night, in our careless times, where no one has time to wait, and everything must be done ASAP, roaring flames proved they too can work fast, erasing the past in the blink of an eye. As the flames were being brought under control, President Emmanuel Macron opened a national and international fund-raising drive to rebuild Notre Dame de Paris. A church, but more than a church, a historical monument, but so much more, this cathedral is “everybody’s home.” No one has ever paid an entrance fee to cross its threshold; Notre Dame welcomes us all. In his 1831 novel “Notre Dame de Paris,” Victor Hugo gave the world its first bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Paris, and he played an important role in awakening public awareness to the church’s importance to all of France. In the 20th century, Americans, perhaps more than the French, understood his message, and Hugo’s novel became a staple of Hollywood. In the 1923 silent film classic, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the hunchback, played by Lon Chaney Sr., pays tribute to the church’s bells as he effortlessly climbs up and down the façade. In 1956, Anthony Quinn became Quasimodo and Gina Lollobrigida the beautiful and seductive Esmerelda. And in 1996, it was Walt Disney’s turn in an animated version. More than the Eiffel Tower, more than the Moulin Rouge, it is Notre Dame de Paris “who” reaches out to the world to say, “this is Paris,” and it is the city’s most visited monument. That is why today I feel I’ve lost a part of myself and I’m sure many others feel the same. Yet the fire has not destroyed the church’s contours. The towers, the walls and the flying buttresses still stand, though weakened by time, neglect and now, flames. The spiritual message of Notre Dame is that humans alone cannot save themselves. Now Notre Dame de Paris seems to be saying she cannot be saved without us. NANCY HONICKER, a Pottsville native who writes the Paris-Pottsville Connection column for the Sunday Republican-Herald, has lived in Paris since 1991 and teaches at the University of Vincennes in Saint-Denis.