By Ottavia Paluch
When news broke out about the fire that was rapidly spreading through the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, I was shocked, in disarray. A centuries-old landmark had been destroyed. A quick Google search tells you that it’s 850 years old. Construction began in 1163 and it took nearly 200 years to complete. Victor Hugo immortalized it in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It’s a site (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, too) that’s full of meaning to Paris locals and the people of France. It survived the French Revolution and both World Wars. It’s a place of worship for not just Catholics, but also for historians, studiers of art and admirers of architecture.
Which is why, as the cathedral burned, Twitter lit up, and tweets from all over the world, some of hope, others of sadness, flooded in. Pictures of those close to the scene, their faces lit up with horror. Videos of them singing hymns. Pictures of the inside of the cathedral, and what remained of it. Videos, and heartbreaking ones at that, of the spire falling.
I texted a friend of mine I found online, another teenage writer from France—just not from Paris. We discussed the situation, and she explained that its burning might’ve been linked to renovations that were going on. She didn’t feel as attached to it as those who lived closer to it were, but it was still a national symbol of pride for her country. The two of us decided we’d write about it. I wrote a poem that at first was RAW and full of TEENAGE EMOTIONS and went through a number of drafts before I was satisfied with it. I felt more empathetic at the end, like I felt the pain of the French.
It was evident that the event had great poetry potential, because so much symbolism was attached to it. The fire broke out during Holy Week, the most sacred time for Christians. It came as the Catholic Church has been submerged in controversy over the abuse of children, while France has dealt with a series of terror attacks that left the nation bruised, scarred, and seeking desperately for some light to brighten the sky, the Champs-Élysées, the triangles of the Eiffel Tower. But not like this. For this, il n’y avait pas des mots.
Late in the middle of the Parisian night, French firefighters held a press conference announcing that Notre-Dame’s famous spire and roof collapsed but the main structure, including the two bell towers, were saved. There was relief that the whole thing hadn’t collapsed. Plenty was lost: the roof, the steeple, the spire. Yet treasured Catholic artifacts were revealed to have been saved. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was in charge of recognizing the emotions that the people of France were feeling. Hell, the world; even the Pope called him. On national television, Macron stated that he’d like to have the gothic building rebuilt in five years. Experts stated that to restore the cathedral both inside and out to the point where you couldn’t distinguish it from how it looked before the fire would be extremely difficult. Maybe it was an act of urgency coming from Macron, a matter of him trying to get on top of the issue, trying to keep his people at ease with what had happened.
I’d check TripAdvisor and see how many were adding to the collection of reviews. A message from the company itself had been added, and said that because of how much has been destroyed, the cathedral will be closed until further notice, which is why tours listed won’t include details about or pictures of the inside of the cathedral. Reviews were pouring in with messages from tourists detailing their experience visiting the cathedral mere days, even hours before the fire. There was also plenty from those who came after the building was closed off, mentioning how thousands of people were surrounding it, mourning its’ partial loss and hoping it’d be rebuilt. One said that even from far away, you could still see the cathedral and smell the burned wood.
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?
Soon after, perhaps even immediately after it was confirmed that the fire had been completely extinguished, a whole other side to the story rose out of the ashes of Notre-Dame. There were reports surfacing of celebrities—and that’s putting it lightly, because they were billionaires—donating hundreds of millions to the rebuilding of the cathedral. It wasn’t long until the money pledged toppled one billion dollars. Billion, with a B. Take for instance, how billionaire Bernard Arnault's family said that they would donate $226 million. Or that the head of a company that owns brands like Gucci vowed to donate $113 million. It was as if the French elite had come together to save something that had meant so much to them, and their donations made sense because of this. Yet the money was raised so quickly, almost like it had appeared out of thin air.
It made you think. Essentially a billion dollars was raised in less than 24 hours for a place of worship in one of the richest areas in the world. What about Flint, Michigan, still on the edge, whose residents are reeling after five years, who are still skeptical when it comes to their town having clean water? That story has mostly fallen from the news cycle. Surely, for much less money, their problem could be fixed.
Notre-Dame was a fixture in the news for a solid week. When other places of worship that had dealt with destruction around the same time made the news, you felt as if their story would’ve been more prominent had it not been for Quasimodo. Historic black churches and Islamic mosques have been burned and destroyed. But, they may have been ignored more than they already were if it weren’t for Notre-Dame bringing their personal disaster to light, which led to a huge increase in donations from the public that will go towards refurbishing. It’s good to know that these places of worship, too, can still have a raison d’etre to call their own.
And you sit and wonder, why? Is Notre-Dame still worth visiting? The answer depends. In a sense, we teenagers are lucky, because we will be witnessing the story of its recovery. It still stands. There’s a reason why people rushed toward it before the fire, (and why they probably will for the next few years during its restoration) to leave their prayer there. They want their faith to be restored.
Events like these are what we spend what seems like forever trying to comprehend, grasp, make sense of. Events like these are drenched in real-life symbolism, have real-life implications, and give meaning, both good and bad, to real life. It’s no wonder why we find ourselves by the blank page in these times, after these events, trying to make sense of it all, knowing that we most likely never will.