Susan Shinn Turner: The indomitable spirit of Notre Dame
By Susan Shinn Turner for the Salisbury Post
PARIS, FRANCE — When my husband and I honeymooned in Paris in the spring of 2017, we stayed at a charming boutique hotel just steps from the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
It’s difficult to understand the sheer bulk of the massive medieval structure until you’re in front of it or in it. It dominates the Ile de la Cite in the oldest part of Paris. And in many ways, the Cathedral of Our Lady is indeed the heart of the city.
The weather was cool but pleasant then, and some days it was nice enough to have our window open in the afternoons. If we looked out the window, the cathedral was to our right. We soon realized that every day about 5 o’clock, the bells of the cathedral just went crazy ringing. We were so close that it was quite loud, but it was not anything we minded. After all, we were on our honeymoon, and it seemed terribly romantic at the time.
We spent a long afternoon in the cathedral, in awe of both the architecture and the artwork within it. I didn’t realize it then, but the Crown of Thorns and other relics are housed here.
One morning, Jim left before breakfast to be the first person in line to climb to the top of the cathedral and survey the city, meandering from one bell tower to the other before descending. I am not a fan of heights or closed-in stairways, so I told him I’d climb with him next time.
When my son asked to go to Paris for college graduation, Notre Dame was at the top of our list of places to see. We’d already talked about climbing to the top together — the three of us with me in the middle. I figured I could do it with my husband and son supporting me up and back.
With the rest of the world, the three of us watched in horror on April 15 as the beloved cathedral burned. Like everyone else, we thought the church was lost. The spire — a later addition — collapsed. The flames seemed too high and too hot. But miraculously, the cathedral survived, basically losing its roof, which was called “The Forest” because of the ancient timber used to create and support the structure.
Even though we knew we wouldn’t be able to enter Notre Dame, it was the first stop we wanted to see once we arrived in Paris. We stayed in another part of town this time, so we walked about 2 miles down to the Seine to see what we could see.
Everyone else visiting Paris seemed to have the same idea.
It wasn’t easy, though. The expansive plaza in front of the cathedral is closed. So are the streets and bridges immediately surrounding it. So in order to see it from all four sides, we had to do a lot of walking, which we did.
Everyone else seemed to be doing the same, taking lots of photos to document their efforts.
In the daytime, the cathedral didn’t look terribly different. Yet much of the stones in the towers and on the sides had been blackened by flames. And it was sad not to see the cathedral alive with people coming and going. After all, it remains an active congregation.
Construction on the cathedral began in 1163 and took nearly 200 years to complete. The French president has said he wants the restoration work done within five years, but experts say it will likely take 10 to 15 years.
When we were there — and again, we saw the cathedral more than once — cranes hovered around it and the intricate scaffolding which had survived the fire remained in place. We saw workers — tiny as ants — up near the top of the bell towers, likely checking the structure’s integrity.
The famous flying buttresses at the back of the cathedral remained intact, although none of the windows survived. But the glorious Rose Window was amazingly in place, as were two other large windows, which were covered during the course of our visit.
One evening, we decided to take a cruise on the Seine. The bottom fell out just as we boarded the boat. But our hotel concierge told us that Parisian showers don’t last long, and she was right. We eventually went up to the top deck, where the seats were damp but the views were unobstructed.
As our boat trundled down the river, we looked up to see Notre Dame soaring high on the bank above us. Yet it was a pitiful sight, dark and silent.
With nearly $1 billion pledged for the restoration efforts, however, Our Lady will one day again be filled with light and life. And the sound of those ringing bells.
Photos by Susan Shinn Turner