Notre Dame and Me – 52 Ancestors #235

Not only is the week preceding Easter a religiously significant week for Christianity, it is as well for Jews who celebrate Passover, the root of Christendom’s Good Friday. The Sunni sect of Islam also fasts in observance of Passover. These religions all have their roots in the same place, just as we are all related to each other.

If Easter, Passover and their associated rites in the various religions that mark these days as Holy are emotion-filled in their own right, this past week has been exponentially so.

Notre Dame fire

By LeLaisserPasserA38 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78064310

A few days ago, on April 15th, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, not quite to the ground, but was extremely damaged in the inferno. The attic of the cathedral, known as “the forest” because of the extremely long old-growth oak trees that were harvested about the year 1160 for beams went up like tinder. The walls and towers remain, along with the famous medieval rose stained-glass windows.

Notre Dame rose windows

By Julie Anne Workman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11590000

As fate would have it, many of the statues on the roof and spire had been removed due to ongoing renovation. The treasures inside were passed, hand to hand, through a human chain to remove them as the fire burned through the roof and before the flames engulfed the upper reaches of the cathedral.

A stunned world watched Notre Dame burn for hours, staring breathlessly as night fell and the fire moved along the roofline, consuming everything in its path, like a hungry monster. The spire flamed dramatically, like a torch, then toppled, falling through the roof into the church, leaving skeletal scaffolding surrounding a black hole.

The fire photo above is the only one that I’m sure is copyright-free, being found on Wikipedia, but the images below are the result of a Google search.

Notre Dame google fire.png

One of the images, the third row from the top, third photo from the left, is horribly beautiful. God, Mother Nature or whatever name you call the Deity, created fire, and man created Notre Dame. The fire illuminated the cathedral and backlit the oldest Rose Window, the one without stained glass. Later images show the fire burning through the round window, licking the stones above.

Je Suis Dévastée

I spent the summer of 1970 traveling and living in Switzerland, studying French and culminating with a trip to Paris where we took up residence in a youth hostel for a week or two. We enjoyed a combination of student and tourist activities.

The midwestern city where I grew up supported a large Catholic church and school along with many smaller Protestant churches, but I never realized the differences between Catholicism and the Methodist and Baptist churches that I attended. The extent of my consciousness was that every church had their own “rules.” My perception was that “God” was entirely the same regardless and only man’s “church rules” varied. Therefore, I paid little mind to those differences.

I mention this because it sets the stage for my visit to Notre Dame.

Paris

Paris in August is stiflingly hot. Air conditioning in Europe is rare and was nonexistent in 1970. That didn’t matter, because nothing was air-conditioned in Indiana either.

As students, we noticed the heat, but it didn’t slow us down.

We spent our days on foot, exploring beautiful Paris and her architectural wonders. I distinctly remember feeling immediately at home in Paris, as if I had been there before – long before. I seemed to remember my way along streets that hadn’t changed much since Medieval times to places I’d never been.

I had no way of knowing that my ancestor, Jacques de Bonnevie, was born in Paris about 1660 and was probably baptized in Notre Dame.

I made my way to the Eiffel Tower, the L’Eglise de Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, the Church at Les Invalides and many parks and historic buildings.

As had been my practice during my trip, I found a local church of some description and slipped into the back row on Sunday mornings. Generally, I managed to slip out again, unnoticed, just as the services ended. My interest was as much cultural as religious, but I enjoyed the wide variety of experiences that were beyond what could be found at home.

My time in Paris was drawing to a close. I had one day left. I decided to go on one final walk-about in the city, knowing with certainty that some wonderful adventure awaited. Not one student in my group was interested in accompanying me, but another young man also staying in the hostel, Jon, wanted to go.

Jon and I set out, walking the streets of Paris in the early morning mist, before the city was quite awake. We marveled at wrought iron gates and old limestone buildings with their guardian gargoyles. If there had been selfies back then, we would have taken several as we laughed, talked and walked.

Eventually, we held hands, not as lovers but as fast friends, enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience that no one else in the world would ever have. Just the two of us on that last, wonderful, day in Paris.

We walked towards the oldest, most historic part of town with the intention of strolling along the Seine River, land of artists, students, peace, love and happiness. The next day, we would forever be parted, so today would be filled with nothing but joy.

Mesmerized

As Jon and I approached the Seine and began to cross the bridge, Pont de la Tournelle, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” standing sentry on Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine which is also the middle of both historical and contemporary Paris.

1970 Paris Notre Dame

As we stood on the bridge, I took this photo. I didn’t realize at that point in time that the building I was staring at intently was indeed the famous Notre Dame. Jon knew.

What I did know beyond a doubt was that I absolutely HAD to go inside that building. Jon mentioned that it probably wasn’t free, so he and I began counting our money to see how much we had between us.

My status as a student meant that anything requiring an entrance fee was beyond my means. Furthermore, I had spent every last dime of discretionary funds, given that it was my last day in Europe and the money I brought had been rationed across months, day by day.

Jon and I enjoyed our walk along the Seine, from the bridge to Notre Dame, drinking in the ambiance of the lovely day. The sun was high in the sky and the heat was oppressive, but we didn’t care. We found shade along the banks of the river, sitting and talking about our dreams for the future amid the background chatter of others.

Notre Dame is massive and has the effect of making one feel minuscule and inconsequential. I hadn’t yet learned that the cathedral was 800 years old, give or take a few years, but it was obviously enormous, exquisite in every detail and wonderfully historic.

Notre Dame buttresses.jpg

The flying buttresses were fascinating and incredible. I knew nothing of architecture or engineering, but I knew enough to appreciate the uniqueness of Notre Dame. At that time, I had no idea just how extraordinary the cathedral actually was.

I had developed an affinity for gargoyles during my stay in Europe, which I retain to this day.

Notre Dame strix.jpg

Jon and I enjoyed spying the gargoyles and other stone carved figures, making up stories about what they were thinking or doing, then laughing at our silliness.

Notre Dame gargoyles.jpg

That day could have lasted forever.

Finally, we approached the gargantuan doors of the cathedral, our tone becoming a bit more somber.

Notre Dame cathedral

By GuidoR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5284809

We were relieved to discover that admission to the cathedral itself was free although access to some features required payment.

Grateful, we crossed the threshold, leaving the hubbub of the city behind as we entered a cool, tranquil sanctum. The stone walls absorbed any noise and the cavernous interior transported us back in time before the era of cars and horns. We left 1970 behind.

Our eyes needed time to adjust to the darkness. It seemed that in those moments, we had entered another world and found ourselves transported to the past when our vision cleared.

I remember the opulence of the interior, and that Notre Dame was unquestionably the largest church I’d ever seen or been inside of – staggering in its enormity.

I didn’t understand the significance of the Catholic symbols, icons or relics, but I certainly understood the historical importance and unparalleled beauty of the building.

I understood, felt in my bones, the deep silence and peace – the respite within those ancient sheltering walls.

As my vision adapted to the darkness, the light entering through the rose window at the end of the nave was what my eye was immediately drawn towards.

Notre Dame nave.jpg

The people here did not seem like tourists, or at least not like the tourists I was used to. They were quiet, subdued and respectful, and I think of them as my co-pilgrims on a journey of discovery and enlightenment.

It’s just that many of us had no idea we were on any such journey.

While the rose windows were not the only stained-glass windows, their position, centered in the distance meant that your eye, and in my case, my body was drawn intensely towards them.

Like a moth to a flame.

As I walked towards the windows, I passed a small table where pilgrims could purchase a candle. Not the votive candles of today, but a tall, thin hand-dipped imperfect candle, maybe 10 or 12 inches long.

The candles weren’t free. I purchased one for a few coins and started to walk, with my unlit candle, towards the rose window, entirely mesmerized. A priest who was selling the candles and helping the pilgrims light them with another candle motioned me to do the same.

I looked confused, and then the Priest looked confused too. Not being Catholic, I didn’t understand the meaning of prayer candles. I did, however, comprehend the fact that a ritual was taking place, and I very much wanted to be a part of the community of ritual in this sacred space.

It didn’t seem as much religious as it did spiritual and inclusive. A human experience.

I lit my candle, but I didn’t cross myself which also served to confuse the Priest. Apparently, he wasn’t used to unschooled non-Catholic teenagers purchasing and lighting candles.

However, even though I lit my candle, I still wanted a candle as my souvenir, so I purchased a second one. Now the Priest was thoroughly confused, especially as I left the group surrounding the candle altars and began walking, alone, carrying my candle, transfixed, towards the rose window.

Notre Dame rose window.jpg

There are no words to describe what I felt.

The window transported my spirit to another time and place, not of this world. I was entranced, hypnotically drawn into the surreal beauty that seemed ethereal.

The darkness of the church seemed to allow the window, the light and the color to illuminate my soul, opening it like a flower, a rose, to the wonder of beauty, contrast and color that would endure for the rest of my life. A divine seed was being sewn in fertile soil that I didn’t understand existed.

Even today, this window has a trance-like spellbinding effect on me, as do other mandalas, including the labyrinth I constructed in my yard.

This life-defining experience initiated a chain reaction of events that won’t end until I “walk on” at the end of my life.

I don’t know how long I spent in Notre Dame that day. I have very little recollection of anything inside except for the transformative experience with the candle and the window. I kept looking for and at the rose window, from every angle, as if it were an ever-present peaceful anchor beckoning in a sea of turmoil.

If you’re lost, just look for the orienting window to find your way. It’s always there.

Jon and I left when the cathedral closed and they shooed us out.

That candle remained among my possessions for many years and life-chapters, even though it broke and cracked. Eventually, life’s events consumed the candle itself, but never the effects of Notre Dame on my life. Notre Dame infused me with my love of history, and more, much more.

Far beyond a building or a church and having nothing to do with a specific religion, Notre Dame was, to me, a place of transition or metamorphosis, a portal from this world finding passage into the infinite beauty of the eternal soul.

My experience in Notre Dame was more a nearly-invisible signal than an epiphany. I had no idea at the time what was so subtly occurring and would only connect the dots, slowly, decades later – in part as I watched Notre Dame burn. Many times a well-placed pebble sets us on our life-path.

So yes, as I sat, horrified, watching the flames consume Notre Dame, I truly was devastated. A little part of me died too as I desperately sought to see my beloved rose window in the footage as the fire burned.

I, along with the rest of the digitally-connected world watched helplessly, and to some extent, hopelessly.

Torn

I was torn between the stark contrast of devastating loss and the surreal beauty of the fire itself. Torn between agonizing loss and hope that not all would be lost. Torn between knowing that Notre Dame is just a building, and that it’s much more.

These are the thoughts that, in no particular order, raced through my mind at various times as I watched throughout the day, and night:

Icon

Coronation

Sanctuary

Witness to history

Survivor

Pope

Grief

National symbol

Accident

Disaster

Ave Maria

Mystical

Catastrophic

Jon

What happened to Jon?

Rose windows

Shared sorrow

World history

Beauty

Ancient

Hymns

Monument

Prayer

Mourn

Slow agony

Renovation

Burn

Church

Hope

Fire

Heartbreak

Museum

Aflame

Can’t rebuild the past

Unity

Reconstruction

Medieval

Respite

Devastation

Emblem

Salvation

Epic

Treasure

Tragic

Holy Week

Revolution

Peace

Crown of Thorns

Relics

Catholic

Beyond Catholic

Religious

Beyond Religious

800 years

32 lifetimes

Ancestor

Baptism

Loss

Anguish

Bonding

Rebuild

Respite

Disbelief

Paris

Agony

Transformation

Human chain

Stab in our collective hearts

Building

Metaphor

Everyone’s past

Permanent

Not permanent

World heritage

UNESCO

Cherish

Cross

Candles

Transcendent

Vessel

Passover

This too shall pass

And there I stopped, because I realized that yes, this too shall pass. Just like Passover in the Jewish faith and Good Friday with the story of the Resurrection in the Christian faith. The end is not necessarily the end. There can be hope, resurrection and salvation even after torturous trials. Notre Dame is metaphorical for all of humanities’ struggles.

Notre Dame is but a building, albeit an incredibly iconic historic one. Buildings can be restored and rebuilt. The heart and soul of Notre Dame is the heights that she inspires people to achieve, the good that she invests in the human condition and the light she shines on the future. Her value is not the building itself, but what she represents, the values she embodies and the inspiration she provides.

Indeed, this dark chapter too shall pass, perhaps uniting and unifying disparate people. Maybe there is a larger lesson in her destruction and rebirth – one for all of humanity. Perhaps this too is a seed of renewal. I hope we comprehend and internalize the message in our current generation and ones that follow.

If so, the hope, inspiration and beauty that Notre Dame infused in me and the seeds she yet holds to plant will live on immortally to guide others and cradle them eternally in her rose-colored, transcendent, illuminating light.

23 thoughts on “Notre Dame and Me – 52 Ancestors #235

  1. I’m so glad that you got to see it. I would love to go to Europe and check these old structures out. They look so awesome in pictures. I bet there are no words for them once you see them in person. =)

    It’s a shame what happened to the cathedral. At least the artifacts are safe and hopefully the cathedral will be standing for generations to come to enjoy.

    Very good story. I’ll have to dig into some of the early Quebecois people in my tree to see if any of them were baptized in Notre Dame. Definitely worth checking out!

    • I am from Quebec. My surname is a noble surname, and it’s engraved in the stone close to the entrance of Notre-Dame, along with its heraldic symbols. I don’t think that you’ll find that information anywhere on the Internet, though!

      Notre-Dame was rebuilt before, and it will be rebuilt again. History is at the core of identity, and when we know who we are, as human beings, we are more grounded.

      As genealogists, we do our share every day!

        • Thanks! The exact lineage still needs to be determined, so you never know, it might be gateway ancestry. The family’s association ordered photocopies of the local records years ago, but they are really difficult to read. It would be best to see the originals or get digital copies, but I called, and the library doesn’t have a scanner yet.

          I talked to an archivist in Europe, where I live, and the “signs and symptoms” are as good as proof that it’s a noble family (not just lower-level landed gentry: high nobility), but as genealogists, we also want the generations, and it would be nice to know the exact connection to Notre-Dame (through which branch).

  2. What a beautiful tribute to this iconic piece of history. To have put pen and paper to how deeply you pulled from inside yourself for your emotions from the time you first set foot inside to watching this tragedy from across the big pond.

  3. A beautiful moving piece …
    Just a note to correct the info
    https://youtu.be/QYHQwN5qD9k
    The human chain carrying the treasures were not firefighters, but the heads of the team in charge of restoration activities that are presumed to have caused the fire. They were the only ones who were already authorized to access the premises. The man who is interviewed is in charge of the crews that are responsible for securing the walls that could fall since the structure holding them has burnt. At this point he says he has not slept for 48 hours.

    This is in French… see if you can still remember what you learned!

      • The emotion in this man’s voice and the video footage, like your candle, don’t need translation. When asked how he felt the next morning when he walked in, he says he cried like a baby….

        He is the one who took the picture of the man who rescued the rooster, who is the main architect for the cathedral.

    • I didn’t do very well understanding what he said. I always had problems understanding television and in the years since I haven’t improved my French, that problem hasn’t gotten any better. Thank you for the summary.

  4. As always, your blog is thoughtful, intelligent and uplifting. I look forward to everything that you post. You put into words what so many feel and are unable to express. Thank you for this. It has been a sad time in so many ways but we can come together here.

  5. I proposed just outside next to one of the towers. So there is a personal connection.
    And it shows the value of practicing for what may never happen. Without the firefighters having drilled for the last 100 years for this rare possibility they may not have been able to save what now remains. I hope the structure and those who love it may heal.

  6. Thank you for eloquently capturing the emotional reaction of many to the existence and burning of Notre Dame.

  7. “I know a lot of you are really upset about the Notre Dame fire in Paris and I’m really sad, too. To see something so beautiful and so carefully constructed be damaged by forces out of your control is very painful. As a scientist who studies species that are going extinct right now, this is the feeling I grapple with more often than I’d like. The irreplaceable work of art that I worship is nature and to watch it senselessly crumble to the ground every day hurts my heart. I highly respect your feelings about what happened today and I hope the parallelI described can help you better understand how many of the people who have devoted their lives to conservation feel quite often. We know you get tired of us shouting about species going extinct and we’re sorry for the broken record but we’re surrounded by burning cathedrals built across millennia and no one seems to care.”
    ~Jonathan Kolby (National Geographic)

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. You have a wonderful gift for story telling. I’ve noticed it before. I’ve had a glimpse of the sacredness that you experienced. My direct maternal ancestor, whose mt-DNA I carry, was from Paris. She was baptized in Église Saint Leu et Saint Gilles in 1645. I was curious if it was still standing. It is. When I saw a picture of the inside, I got chills, thinking about her parents walking down the isle for her baptism almost 400 years ago. (I don’t know if that really happened, but I could imagine it.) Knowing that it is possible to do the same today. That connection through time. The sacred space. Just wow!

  9. Thank you for this touching piece. My first time in Paris (1956), I felt the same: I seemed to know my way around all the little streets in the old city, never getting lost, always knowing my directions The scents and sounds seemed to have been mine forever. It was like having a déja vu, but it lasted for three full days. Strangely enough, all my people are from Germany except one: the grandfather whose identity I have never found.
    You can imagine what I think.

  10. Thanks for sharing your feelings and emotions about this tragedy. I thought in looking at the Rose Window it was like playing with a kaleidoscope when a child.

  11. Thank you, Roberta, for another personal, heart-moving blog post! For me, the following picture was the most emotional:
    https://bilder.bild.de/fotos-skaliert/blick-in-das-verbrannte-herz-von-notre-dame-61280168/1,w=1280,c=0.bild.jpg
    It was taken as one of the first in the day after the catastrophe and shows that the golden cross at the altar is still intact and shines across all the burnt wood in the cathedral.

    I hope it will be the same for all of us, that whatever turmoil we have to go through in our times, there will be a light that survives against all odds and guide us on our way!

    • I really liked that photo too and the sense of hope it conveys. There was also one of the votive candles still burning too.

  12. Roberta, thank you for the tribute to Notre Dame. It brings us together.

    The first time I saw the Cathedral and flying buttresses, it was awesome and silencing. And what an abundance of crocketed pinnacles! So happy the ~12 million visitors annually can still see the magnificence of the exterior architecture.

    New knowledge for me is that the Cathedral, while owned by the French state, gives the Catholic Church the exclusive right to use for religious purposes in perpetuity; and the Archdiocese does not receive subsidies from the French state.

  13. Thank You Roberta –

    Having never traveled to Paris, and only seeing Notre Dame in movies, I could visualize and feel your state of awe as you saw from a distance, and were drawn to this historic cathedral.

    Thank you for sharing this day in your life.

    Ally n Cali

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