Greenwich students among the last to visit Notre Dame
GREENWICH — On Palm Sunday, a group of Stanwich School students and teachers assembled in the parvis of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris for the Mass.
The group of 18 students and three chaperones collected blessed palms, and took pictures of the flying buttresses, gleaming in the sun, the rose stained-glass window, refracting blue and red light, and a heroic statue of St. Joan of Arc, surrounded by candles.
Little did they know their palms would mark the eve of the end of an era, and become souvenirs of the day before the iconic French monument went up in smoke and flames.
The cathedral caught fire Monday after 5:50 p.m. local time, and the whole world watched as the national monument and international tourist destination burned. Police say it began accidentally and may be linked to building work at the church, which was undergoing heavy renovations. One firefighter was injured while battling the blaze.
The iconic spire that reaches higher than most of the Parisian skyline toppled and the roof collapsed. The facade and the two main towers did not fall, however, and some artifacts and artwork were saved — including a dozen bronze statues, removed last week for work, and two Catholic relics, the Crown of Thorns, believed to have been placed on Jesus’ head during the Crucifixion, and the Tunic of St. Louis. Other priceless pieces may still be in danger.
Eighteen sophomore and junior Stanwich students, chaperoned by Stanwich teachers Anaïs Latimore, Jackie Wood and Shannon Hubertus, had finished dinner in the châtelet area and were exploring the quartier. At the designated meeting time, the chaperones noticed smoke billowing on the horizon and got the students back to their hotel, foregoing a trip to the Eiffel Tower to ensure the students’ safety.
“Although we gave a sigh of relief when we found out it was a construction fire, the realization quickly set in that we were among the last people to see the magnificent cathedral,” Latimore said in an email. “We feel very fortunate to be in this city together. Our hearts are broken about Notre Dame and our prayers are with the city as we mourn the loss of one of the world’s most meaningful landmarks.”
Latimore, who is from Mantes la Jolie, a 45-minute ride from Paris, said her best memories are in Paris. She and her husband took their older son to the towers of Notre Dame last winter to see the bells. Her son, Leon, kept talking about Quasimodo.
“I will forever cherish this moment,” she said. “As I saw the smoke rising in the sky, all I could picture was this picture of my son Leon with the spire in the back. And then tonight, I saw the spire breaking down in flames.”
Camille Serchuk, a professor of Art History at Southern Connecticut State University, was also in Paris when the fire started. She saw enormous flames and plumes of smoke shoot into the air from the National Library in the 13th arrondissement, or district.
The sight of smoke on the horizon struck her dumb. Cathedrals burned frequently in the Middle Ages, but not so much in the 2000s.
“There’s tremendous sorrow. People are shocked and overwhelmed,” Serchuk said. Once residents and tourists heard that not all of the structure was lost, she said “there’s some relief.”
Amy Thorpe, a sophomore media studies major at Quinnipiac University, is studying in Paris for the semester and was in her apartment in the seventh district — a 20-minute walk from the cathedral — when her mom called and asked if she was OK. Thorpe went outside, saw the smoke and ran to the cathedral.
She stayed there for two hours, which were strangely quiet, she said. A half-hour later, people started singing French prayers and encouraging the police and firefighters for putting their lives at risk “for the good of Paris.”
“This event showed really that the human spirit can triumph even in challenging times,” Thorpe said. “Events like this don’t just happen in Paris; they happen all over the world, including the U.S. Paris set a strong example today of how, respectfully and sensitively, to act when a tragedy happens.”
Like Latimore, Brunswick School teacher, linguist and newly published author Mimi Melkonian thought of Quasimodo, the hero of French novelist Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” when she heard news of the fire.
Melkonian visits Paris every year with her family, and they consider the city their second home. She wrote an homage to Notre Dame a few hours after the fire started:
“Quasimodo and Victor Hugo are in mourning / A symbol of the French national heritage disappears in smoke / Paris, France and the world are affected in the heart / A huge sadness invades the city of lights and love / Notre-Dame of Paris belongs to the world and we all cry.”
Alliance Française of Greenwich President Renée Amory Ketcham on Monday said she remembered how clean the cathedral was when she last saw it in January, while she was visiting Paris for a film festival. It seemed to her to sparkle against a backdrop of dingy gray stone structures.
“She stood out like a star,” Ketcham said.
And then the star burned up. Ketcham and her fellow alliance members prayed it was not arson, but an accident.
“It’s absolutely tragic,” Ketcham said. “We just hope that Notre Dame will still be standing so that this incredible example of French Gothic architecture will be around for all of us to admire, participate in, and have on our bucket list to go around the world.”
Everybody loves Notre Dame, she said, which tops many tourists’ lists of places to visit when they see Paris for the first time.
In fact, the church at the city center is the most visited monument in Paris, with more than 12 million visitors a year — almost double the people who visit Eiffel Tower.
Serchuk said the church resonates with so many people because the Gothic style sets out to capture heavenly transcendence, to bring the light of heaven into the church and connect with God.
“In some ways, it really marks an effort to connect humans with God, to blur the boundary,” she said. People have to see the scattered light, experience the soaring ceilings, smell the incense and hear the organ to grasp it, however. “It’s not like anything else on Earth.”
For Parisians, losing the cathedral is like losing the Empire State Building, Serchuk said.
“It’s a monument by which you can orient yourself,” she said. “It’s the way Parisians know their home, and it has been since the 12th century.”
French President Emmanuel Macron announced that, starting Tuesday, he will launch an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral.
“I’m telling you all tonight — we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny. And we will do it in the next years. Starting tomorrow, a national donation scheme will be started that will extend beyond our borders,” Macron said.
Serchuk said when the cathedral is rebuilt, it will not be the same church: It will have a 21st-century element to it, just as the church has elements from the 12th, 13th, 14th and 19th centuries.
Although the task is monumental and epic, Serchuk is confident it will get done. And Ketcham, the Greenwich Alliance Française president, knows why.
“Notre Dame means something to all of us,” Ketcham said.