More Than the Heart of a City

Published: April 17, 2019

By Jim Lichtman
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The fire that devastated one of the great religious, cultural and architectural treasures of the world – the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris – not only shocked French citizens but the world.

Photo: Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS

If the walls inside this cavernous basilica could talk, they would tell a story of conflict, coronation, and courage.

Built by hand more than 850 years ago, Notre-Dame – French for Our Lady – lived through vandalism from the French Revolution and celebration after the liberation of Paris in 1944. It played host to the coronations of King Henry VI in 1431 and Napoleon I in 1804, as well as the marriage of Mary Queen of Scotts. In later years, the church was the site for memorial services for former French president, Charles de Gaulle in 1970, and again for President François Mitterrand in 1996.

So bonded to the history of France that all distances on French highways are measured from kilomètre zéro, the square facing the front of Notre Dame.

In their book, The Intellectual Devotional, authors David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim note that “Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in order to raise public awareness of Notre Dame’s history at a time when the building was in danger of being razed.” The book’s popularity led to a 20-year restoration and the addition of the church’s famous spire.

The fire began shortly after the church closed at about 6:30 PM local time in the attic below the church’s signature spire. It only took an hour for the fire to engulf the roof, claiming the life of the 295-foot pinnacle.

The Associated Press reported (Apr. 15), “The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said a significant collection of art and holy objects inside the church had been recovered. …she thanked firefighters and others who formed a human chain to save artifacts. ‘The crown of thorns, the tunic of St. Louis and many other major artifacts are now in a safe place,’ she wrote.”

“The building’s 13th-century rose windows, called ‘one of the greatest masterpieces of Christianity’ by the cathedral, appeared to have survived, cathedral spokesman André Finot told BFM-TV,” USA Today reports (Apr. 16).

“The cathedral’s famous 18th-century organ and its 8,000 pipes also survived, officials said.”

“Experts say firefighters were left with devastatingly few options to save a structure,” the AP adds, “built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said, “Notre Dame of Paris is our history, our literature, our imagination. The place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives.”

Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral in the next five years, and more than $700 million has been pledged toward that effort thus far.

Notre Dame may be the heart of Paris, but for hundreds of thousands, it has been a sanctuary for the poor and oppressed. It stands for faith over despair, hope over doubt and light over darkness.

After the fire, that light shined on a cross above the altar. Votive candles, still lit, stood as silent prayers in a message to the world that the light of hope continually shines.


  1. Hello, and thank you for the well written and very informational post. Although I was never lucky enough to visit the beautiful cathedral, I have seen many pictures that my grandmother had taken from her visit there many years ago. I was touched to learn that the firefighters helped so much in the recovery of the art inside the cathedral. I was also surprised to learn about the history with the [book and] movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I hope one day in the future, once Notre Dame has been rebuilt, that I will get a chance to visit. Thank you again.

  2. Yes, a piece of history and fortunately most of it was saved. So glad we have been able to “experience” her several times and look forward to the reconstruction.

    Well stated: “Notre Dame stands for faith over despair, hope over doubt and light over darkness.” (Interesting that votive candles burn safely in many churches.)

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