I cried the first time I saw the Notre-Dame, years ago. I’d waited my entire life to see this iconic French structure, and there I was on a bright sunny day, experiencing it in its full glory. Last night, I again cried at the cathedral, weeping along with thousands of other Parisians and visitors as we watched the centuries-old church burn.
I hadn’t expected to spend my evening that way—watching the roof and spire go up in flames and collapse, anxiously waiting to see if the leaping fire would take the bell towers in the front as well. We dined at a cafe a block or so over earlier, opting to skip going inside with the intention to go back the next day. I’d been several times; my traveling companion was in Paris for the first time.
When we walked back to the church in the evening, following plumes of smoke visible from the Eiffel Tower, we were enveloped into a nearly silent crowd. Some were praying, some were crying, but most were staring in disbelief at the disaster happening before us. The fire continued to get worse; flames flickered behind the center columns of the front facade. It seemed at the time there was no hope of saving the cathedral.
About 400 firefighters were working to control the blaze, along with two drones and a robot. We could see their flashlights shining as they inspected the front from a balcony, white points of light above the glowing orange pit that became the interior of the church during the inferno.
I’m not from France—my French is barely decent enough to order a croissant—nor am I particularly religious, but I felt that moment deep in my soul. The Notre-Dame is part of the heartbeat of Paris. A meeting place, an attraction, a spiritual haven. I reflected on the experiences I’ve had there, from attending a bread market out front, to hugging a friend goodbye as she left for an evening out, to marveling at the beautiful windows and architecture inside. The cathedral is ingrained in the French identity, and a spot that helps make Paris so magical. And here we were, watching it burn down. It was too much to handle, but it was impossible to look away.
At about 9:30 p.m., the gathered crowd spontaneously began to sing hymns to the church. One woman held the lyrics up on her phone for everyone to see. A man gave small sermons between each song. We sang along with the group, feeling at once less like tourists and more like members of the community we were in, witnessing history being made.
For hundreds of years, the Notre-Dame has seen the most joyous and the most devastating of moments in the lives of both France and her people. And when everyone was able to become one emotional force, it showed that even in her darkest hour, the Notre-Dame was still there to bring us all together.