Notre Dame

We watched, shaking our heads, biting our lips, and a few of us wiped our eyes.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and the world watched it burn. The only word that comes to mind is “tragedy.” A real tragedy.

I never got to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though, I had a chance once when I was nineteen. A girl I was dating from Dothan was going to France on scholarship. She asked me to go with her.

It was a bad idea. I am a small-town American who has never traveled overseas. The idea of leaving U.S. soil makes me break out in hives—I wouldn’t survive the Turkish toilets.

I told her to send me a postcard. I never saw her again.

But I always wanted to go. In fact, there are only a few things I’d like to see in person before I die:

The World Series. The Dixie Belle Riverboat. And the spires of Notre Dame de Paris.

I guess I missed my chance.

Today, my wife and I were riding through the Arizona wilderness after spending a weekend at the Grand Canyon. The local radio station interrupted George Strait to announce that Notre Dame was on fire.

My wife turned up the volume. A reporter with a heavy French accent said:

“Ze greatest relic of our civilization is engulfed in flames.” The announcer’s voice broke with emotion. “It is a tragedy, people, a true tragedy…”

My wife covered her mouth.

We pulled over at a burger joint outside Flagstaff, not far from historic Route 66. And in the all-American diner we watched the corner television broadcast a scene from Hell.

A flaming cathedral roof, falling to pieces. Dante’s Inferno.

“I been there once,” said our waitress, filling my coffee mug. “My family’s Italian Catholic, we saw the cathedral last year and my grandpa was holding my hand all along the tour, crying at the relics.”

“We’ve been there, too,” said another man who was eating lunch with his daughter. “Visited one summer, took my breath away.”

The man’s daughter nodded in agreement and kept working on her French fries.

“I couldn’t believe the rose windows,” our waitress went on. “I probably took a hundred pictures of the windows alone.”

The windows she’s referring to are the famous circular stained glass works, adorning the cathedral’s main portals.

The waitress showed us pictures on her phone. Those at the lunch counter craned necks to get a glimpse. We marveled.

The waitress replaced her cellphone in her pocket and made the Sign of the Cross.

“Just think,” said the waitress, “that building dates back to the days of Saint Francis of Assisi.”

It was sobering. My wife couldn’t eat her hashbrowns because she was watching the devastation. I saw a tear in the corner of her eye.

My wife tells me she once stood in Notre Dame, looking at its rafters, and she felt something deep. Awe, maybe.

“Uh oh,” a man said. “Look.”

It happened. The television showed footage of Notre Dame’s French Gothic spire, falling downward into a blaze. It toppled headfirst.

People in the restaurant let out small gasps. An old man sighed. So did the waitress. So did I.

I suppose we all knew what this meant. It meant the wooden lattice work that predates our surnames is gone. Certainly, it might be rebuilt someday, but it will never be what was lost.

Thus, on a quiet Monday afternoon, somewhere in America, my wife and I ate lunch in the company of fellow mourners.

We were five thousand miles away, in a side-of-the-road eatery, but in our hearts we were standing in the City of Lights across the Atlantic.

We watched, shaking our heads, biting our lips, and a few of us wiped our eyes.

Images of flames. European reporters wearing looks of disbelief. An eight-hundred-and-fifty-year-old holy monument, reduced to ashes.

It was not just a chapel, our waitress explained.

It was a subject of Impressionist paintings. It was a muse for Victor Hugo’s literary masterpiece. It contains what many believe to be the crown of thorns from the Crucifixion.

After our waitress served her last customer, she removed her apron and walked outside. I could see her through the diner window. She sat with hands clasped and head bowed.

I paid at the register. I took a final glance at the disturbing scenes on TV and realized I will never get to see it. At least not the way it was.

In the parking lot, I passed our waitress, seated on a bench. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but I caught a few words.

“Áve María, grátia pléna,
Dóminus técum…”

It was a tragedy. A real tragedy.

32 comments

  1. Connie Havard Ryland - April 16, 2019 7:23 am

    I never got to see it either. I would never have been able to, no matter how much I longed to go. But it was there, a monument of holiness. The keeper of marvels. And it is a real tragedy. I haven’t seen any footage of the fire; I don’t think I could stand it. But I’m mourning with the rest of the world.

    Reply
  2. George - April 16, 2019 7:50 am

    We were there until about 6:15 pm. We have been several times but will not see it’s flory again in our lifetime. We attended the final vespers befor the tragedy.

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  3. Karen - April 16, 2019 8:44 am

    I saw it when I was 17, because my parents wanted us to experience Paris. It was holy and powerful. This saddens me so much.

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  4. GaryD - April 16, 2019 10:24 am

    I saw two pictures of it burning . That was all I could stand . I hope I never see the video .

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  5. Judith T Jester - April 16, 2019 11:31 am

    Excellent!

    Reply
  6. Sherry - April 16, 2019 12:05 pm

    For this to happen during Holy Week is even more profound…but hopefully, “Our Lady” will rise from the ashes. And through the grace of God, it is not terrorism….🙏🏻

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  7. Patti Knapp - April 16, 2019 12:28 pm

    Sean, a very powerful narrative of what all of us felt yesterday. The world mourns together for this unfathomable loss. Your writing brought a tear to my eye.

    Reply
  8. Naomi - April 16, 2019 12:39 pm

    I got to go to Notre Dame in 1992.

    Reply
  9. Connie - April 16, 2019 12:55 pm

    Yes, it is a tragedy, I’ve seen it and The memory is in my mind and heart. Thank you for posting about it today!

    Reply
  10. Arthur Portas - April 16, 2019 12:57 pm

    A tragedy, yes. An Omen, perhaps. Will it be rebuilt, of course! Better? maybe. Like life and our Faith, it will endure.

    Reply
  11. Ann - April 16, 2019 1:04 pm

    She survived the French Revolution and she will survive this. The alter is safe and so are the relics including the Crown of Thorns. I’ve started to think that God wanted to throw a “test” our way. They have said that the Christian faith in Europe is dead. Her churches sit empty while tourists peruse the aisles. No, not after seeing the French citizens on their knees with rosaries singing “Ave Maria” in the midst of their beloved Lady burning.. And they were all young! She will rebuild; perhaps the Faith is not so gone after all. And all during Holy Week. God is good.

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    • Karen J - April 16, 2019 3:17 pm

      Your comments were my thoughts exactly.

      Reply
  12. David Giles - April 16, 2019 1:16 pm

    We saw it last year, it’s breathtaking. The scenes from yesterday took me back more than a couple of years to New Orleans, I was taking the Algiers ferry home from work when I looked toward the French Quarter only to see smoke pouring from The Cabildo. A careless worker had started a fire with a torch. It was gut wrenching to see such an historic building on fire. I can only imagine the feeling of loss the French people are dealing with today. I do know, however, the building will be repaired as so many historic buildings were after WWII, it will take time of course and during that time some of the pain will be erased by the goodness of people worldwide that help in someway with the rebuilding.

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  13. Kristy Zinna - April 16, 2019 1:25 pm

    I dispute the veracity of some of these facts. I’m from Dothan. No one there goes to France. 🙂

    Reply
  14. Pawpaw - April 16, 2019 1:40 pm

    During my 28 years in the Army I spent 8 years in Europe. Notre Dame was one of my favorite destinations. I am a history nut and just standing in that beautiful place and looking at all the wondrous things inside that building was awe inspiring. So much beautiful history lost forever. I was in tears as I watched it burn.

    Reply
  15. Shelton A. - April 16, 2019 2:07 pm

    I only saw it from the outside and that was magnificent. A loss we should all feel. Praise be to God that most of the relics were saved…I don’t know about the rose windows. The one I saw from the outside was, by all appearances, beautiful.

    Reply
  16. Tim House - April 16, 2019 3:17 pm

    Many of us watched, as well… 🙁

    Reply
  17. Ellen - April 16, 2019 3:18 pm

    Two of three rose windows survived intact. Most of the inside has survived. The Pieta survived undamaged as far as I know. Paintings were removed just a few days before the fire because of the renovations. Money is pouring for restoration. I’m sure you’ve seen many of the pictures, but look for the photo of the fireman in the doorway. It is stunning. Rueters, I think. Iconic.

    Now you will have to go. Besides, you should travel. Get your passport and start small. Alaska would be a good start. That’s still the US. One of those cruises to Alaska would be good.

    Reply
  18. Rich from Florida - April 16, 2019 3:30 pm

    There are only a few things worth interrupting George Strait for – this is one of them.

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - April 16, 2019 5:52 pm

      Truth, Rich…

      I saw it thirty years ago. Beyond magnificent!!! I regret we were not allowed to take pictures inside at the time and I was afraid to sneak any. I am heartened that so many people were grieving over such a monumental loss of the old, the history and workmanship, it’s treasures, the really irreplaceable. It will rise as the phoenix, as did the Christ…for good. There is Heart and Holy left in the world. Go after the rebuilding Sean and Jamie.

      Reply
  19. MermaidGrammy - April 16, 2019 5:51 pm

    Absolutely beautiful — your account. Thank you

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - April 16, 2019 5:57 pm

      Your sketch is beautiful by the way!!

      Reply
  20. Joyce Hooper - April 16, 2019 6:56 pm

    This is perhaps your most powerful piece! I have never been to France, but I mourn with the people there during this Holy Week.

    Reply
  21. Helen from Dothan, Alabama - April 16, 2019 7:58 pm

    I agree. So sad to lose such a treasure but it will be back. A certain few may find it hard to believe but many people from Dothan, Alabama travel to France and other parts of the word.

    Reply
  22. June - April 16, 2019 9:26 pm

    So sad…..Such a terrible loss.

    Reply
  23. Sue Ann Balch - April 17, 2019 1:36 am

    Beautifully worded. In 2006, I took my newly graduated college daughter there. We knelt in the silence and the glow of the dancing lights from the windows—it was late in the day. There were massive prayer books and I started writing down every prayer request and the names of anyone back home I loved and some I hated. I filled two pages. My daughter says that for centuries they have put these books in a vault in the basement. I pray this is so. She called me crying and a French friend also called and we wept together.

    Reply
  24. Peggy Bilbro - April 17, 2019 2:13 am

    Thank you Sean. I’ve seen her in all her eight hundred year old glory. I’m sorry you didn’t have that privilege. Your words have brought tears to my eyes.

    Reply
  25. Linda - April 17, 2019 3:04 am

    Please go Sean and Jamie….it is not to be missed….your trips around the States enrich you as evidenced by your wonderful writing…..
    Think of the people you could meet….
    We have traveled extensively due to my husband’s job….we have so many stories from all over the world….
    Ghost stories from Malaysia, WW II Doodlebug observer, people who have stories of visiting the States….
    It’s all so enlightening, exciting and broadening….
    Life is short, you two….😘

    Reply
  26. Charaleen Wright - April 17, 2019 4:00 am

    Reply
  27. Jill - April 17, 2019 9:20 am

    I saw that Mike Rowe resent this column to his 5.3M fans yesterday. Congratulations!! .
    Live!! Congrats, Sean.

    Reply
  28. Edna B. - April 17, 2019 3:04 pm

    Such a tragedy! I’ve never been there either, and now I’ll never have the chance. Sean, you have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  29. Kay Keel - April 18, 2019 2:25 pm

    I’m from Dothan, Alabama too, and I know many Dothan people who have traveled “across the pond” and seen the splendor of the beautiful old buildings there, including “Our Lady”. My grandmother was one and she talked of it for years! I have not seen it in person, but the videos of the French people singing “Ave Maria”, while watching it burn, some through tears, made my heart feel slightly better. Other commenters have said it better, but as I watched, I felt their love…and their hope…and their faith. As He taught us, the greatest of these is LOVE.

    Reply

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