Many of us watched, riveted to our screens, as Notre Dame Cathedral burned on Monday. Though it seemed then that all could be lost, the charred walls of the medieval gem still stood the next day and many of the artworks and relics remained safe. Still, scenes of the world treasure in flames seared the hearts of Minnesotans. Here are reflections of some who have visited the cathedral, from a recently returned high school student to radio host Michael Barone, who has played Notre Dame’s pipe organ.
Chris Welsch, former Star Tribune travel writer, now a Paris resident
During the past year I’ve been to Notre Dame a dozen times, helping a friend who is setting up a tour business called Secret Journeys. He had made arrangements with the French government (which owns all the churches in France) and the Catholic Church to bring in visitors after it closes to the public at 7 p.m. and before one of the weekly concerts, which start at 8:30 p.m. So I have wandered in the cathedral with only a few other people, including the choir rehearsing medieval music that was written to be performed in the church in the 1300s. It’s a powerful experience that I feel even more privileged to have enjoyed after Monday’s events.
Notre Dame is a touchstone for every French person and for everyone who has been to Paris. It’s the most visited place in the city; 13 million a year come by most counts. Every major event in French history has left its mark there somehow, sometimes in violent ways, as when the Revolutionaries beheaded the row of statuary kings lined up across the facade.
I’ve lived in Paris for nearly 10 years now and even when the cathedral was crowded and noisy, there was something silent and beautiful at the center of it. The architecture makes stone, the very definition of heaviness, soar upward. I could never walk into the nave without lifting my eyes to the rose windows and the delicate arches of stone that form the vault, which was exactly how it was designed to affect visitors. I once heard a poet say that what amazed him about Gothic churches is how they make you understand the vastness of space by enclosing it. This was part of the magic of Notre Dame.
One thing that comforts me is that even though the construction on the church began in 1163, the project has never really been completed. It has constantly been under some kind of expansion, repair or reconsideration, including the one that was going on when this fire started. So in the span of my human life, Notre Dame will never be the same, but in the span of the life of the building, it’s just one more chapter in a long, long book.
Michael Barone, host of radio program ‘Pipedreams’
We “organ folk” have a long-standing relationship with the instruments at Notre Dame Cathedral. While in high school, I bought an LP that featured an organ symphony by Louis Vierne, Notre Dame organist from 1900 until 1937. The performer, Pierre Cochereau, was Notre Dame organist from 1955-1984. Though Cochereau would later modernize the 1868 organ by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll with an electro-pneumatic console, replacing the original mechanical-action one, his recording of the Vierne Second Symphony was made on the original instrument, as Vierne himself knew it. What a sound!
Eventually I would meet Cochereau, collect other of his recordings, and even record him myself, both in a recital he gave in Rochester, Minn., and in a Sunday service during my first visit to Notre Dame in 1978. Later, I heard him in a summer evening concert. The cathedral was packed, and I sat on a bench looking straight back at the organ facade and the window above. Magnificent!
When I led a “Pipedreams” group tour to Notre Dame in 2004, our host was the young Olivier Latry, one of the three organists who today fill the shoes of Cochereau as co-titulaires. I’d first met Olivier in 1985 during his first American tour after having been appointed to the Notre Dame post — at the age of 25. We’ve been friends ever since. He helped with stop-pulling at the Notre Dame organ console as I attempted to play a solo arrangement of the Kyrie movement from Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, a score arranged by Alexander Schreiner, with his son, John Schreiner, standing behind me. Memorable and frightening!
Other Notre Dame organists have played locally and been recorded for “Pipedreams,” including Vincent Dubois and Johann Vexo.
You might think that the attractive agents here were the musicians of Notre Dame: Vierne, the composer of incomparably dramatic recital music; Cochereau, creator of concert and liturgical improvisations so profound that many have been transcribed and published for others to play; and Latry, Dubois, Vexo. But the thread that connects them all is Notre Dame Cathedral, its instruments and the music made upon them. Notre Dame’s heritage stretches back to the earliest years of music history and will continue again, resolutely revitalized in our time, following the building’s restoration and recovery after this present disaster, and the return of its restored organs. I expect to live to see that day.
Noah Raaum, junior at St. Paul Academy, recently returned from a school trip
Notre Dame still stands tall in my memory.
The moment I walked in, its cool serenity and understated grandeur transfixed me. I stared for minutes on end at the stone ceiling that felt miles above my head. The stained glass was something else — so selective with the light it let in, reflecting colors and patterns and scenes.
We came on a cloudy day and the cathedral felt empty. Our group dissipated into the pews and around the altars. I am not Catholic, but I worshiped this building in a way that goes beyond religion. Its age was palpable; its history bled from the cracks between the stones and enveloped me. I retreated to a pew, to take all of it in. I closed my eyes and heard whispered echoes from the other end, poignant and desolate. I could only imagine the thunderous acoustics at full mass. I would succumb instantly to the spirit.
Then, I stepped outside. Modest gardens wrapped around her perimeter, overlooking the Seine. At the rear, beneath the flying buttresses, dozens of rustic birdhouses were planted in the dirt surrounded by evergreens. Rows of perfectly trimmed trees with benches in between stretched to the end of the island. I thought about the essence of the flying buttresses: a daring, captivating architectural triumph that signified the sureness of this building’s footing.
The damage to Notre Dame is incomprehensible. I was there just four weeks ago, for my first and last time seeing her as time intended. It pains me to imagine what France feels today.
Catherine Roberts, a Star Tribune business team leader
It seems odd to feel heartbreak with only a newfound connection to a building. Yet that’s how my husband, Chad, also an editor at the Star Tribune, and I felt as we saw Notre Dame in flames and the spire fall. Two Sundays ago, we had a brief, overnight layover in Paris, and we knew where we wanted to start: Notre Dame.
We came up the stairs from the St. Michel/Notre Dame subway stop, and it was just as I had imagined since high school French classes, this building that has survived more than 800 years with its intricate carvings and stained glass. It was, simply put, stunning.
Our timing was good; we were able to attend mass. We went out of curiosity but also because these centuries-old churches have a kind of energy and sense of reverence you can’t feel in the U.S., which is so young compared with Europe.
They tell you during RCIA, the classes you take to join the Catholic Church as an adult, that there’s a continuity to the faith when you think that people have been reciting traditional responses and receiving eucharist in the same way across the world for that many years, that what seems like a routine is really a way to connect over continents and time. It’s what you feel at Notre Dame.
The church had been damaged before, the most during the French Revolution. President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild again, so I’m sure in 50 or 100 years, the effects of the fire will seem like just another scar on walls that have absorbed so much. But for now, it seems like such a tragedy, and I can still smell the incense used by the priests, led by the archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit.
As we rushed to see other sights, I wondered if we would regret spending so much time at Notre Dame. But on a night cruise along the Seine, seeing it from a different angle, I decided it was worth it. Now that time seems a precious gift as I think about what loss the Parisians must feel.
Lane Rosenthal, owner of tour company Paris Off Script
The crowd lined the quais in silence as daylight turned to dusk and the spire of Notre Dame de Paris, engulfed in flames, teetered, then fell.
A half-mile away, I sat chatting easily with a friend in a cafe. There was no smell of smoke, no sound of a crash, not even noticeable police sirens wailing — nothing unusual except a bustling cafe uncharacteristically empty. Eventually, I saw my phone light up with missed calls and messages and learned that Notre Dame was burning.
The first time I saw the cathedral, I was overwhelmed. The enormous, high-vaulted Gothic nave, held in place by the miracle of gravity and mathematics and flying buttresses, made me feel grand and small at the same time. Exactly, I remember thinking, what you should feel in a house of God.
The next time I saw Notre Dame, I stood in the chilly Paris winter waiting to climb the tower stairs to explore the exterior, be eye-to-eye with the gargoyles, and marvel at the enormous bells.
These days, my relationship with Notre Dame, as with Paris, has evolved. I explore the unusual. Lately, I’ve taken to wandering slowly around the cathedral’s perimeter at all hours, searching until my neck hurts, for the legendary alchemist perched among the menacing gargoyles. I’ve never found him.
Toward midnight, I walked down to the Seine and stood staring at the gaping hole behind the towers. Shock turned to sadness. I stayed well past midnight thinking of Paris, and also of Victor Hugo and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who, in the mid-19th century, worked together to restore the Gothic masterpiece, adding the majestic spire. I saw enormous arcs of water spraying the flying buttresses on the eastern end and the crooked arm of a crane in the surreal gap behind the towers. A woman wearing red shoes stood on the quai, elbows resting on a shuttered bouquiniste stall, holding her head in her hands.