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‘It’s a funeral’: Tears, prayers and shock as Paris mourns Notre-Dame

AFP | Paris's historic Notre-Dame cathedral went up in flames on Monday 15 April, 2019

Thousands of Parisians gathered in the streets around Notre-Dame on Monday evening and held a vigil on the banks of the River Seine after a devastating fire tore through the city’s beloved cathedral.

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Some of the crowd were in tears, some looked on in subdued silence as Notre-Dame continued to burn. Others sang spontaneous ‘Ave Marias’ and passed rosary beads through their fingers as the smell of woodsmoke hung in the air.

Four hours after the fire broke out just before 7pm on Monday evening, hundreds of Parisians were still gathering in the side streets around the Gothic Catholic basilica that sees some 13 million visitors every year.

Situated on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of the French capital, the 12th-century church has “survived epidemics, wars, liberation”, said French President Emmanuel Macron as he arrived at the scene of the blaze.

Notre-Dame was immortalised by French novelist Victor Hugo in his 1831 novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame', and it was the site of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France in 1804. It is also celebrated for its rose-coloured stained-glass windows and its many gargoyles and flying buttresses.

“I couldn’t stay home,” said Emmanuel, 50, “I had to be here. We all know and love Notre-Dame. It’s Victor Hugo. It’s part of our cultural roots and a huge part of our history.”

Camille, 25, felt the same. “Notre-Dame is the jewel of Paris. It’s my favourite place in the city,” she said. “I went to Mass there just two weeks ago. It’s just heartbreaking to see these centuries of history and culture go up in smoke.”

Shiv Malik, a former Guardian reporter, was hard at work in his room above the Shakespeare and Company bookshop when his wife rang to say Notre-Dame was on fire.

'It feels like the end of the world'

“I looked out of the window… and my first reaction was complete bemusement,” said Malik.

“This has been a particularly chaotic couple of years... There’s been a real upheaval in the West. You see something like this and it feels like the end of the world.”

Malik’s third-floor window offers a direct view of Notre-Dame across the river. He watched as the flames first broke out in the cathedral’s spire, on the scaffolding where renovations were being carried, and then as the blaze spread first to the roof and then to one of the rectangular bell-towers.

A thin black stream of smoke soon turned to belching white acrid plumes that drifted across the river and made the surrounding streets “smell like a bonfire”. The fire had been blazing for a full half an hour before firefighters were on the scene and began hosing it down with water pumped from the Seine.

Malik has a particularly personal connection to Notre-Dame. “I first kissed my wife under the shadow of Notre-Dame so for me it’s meant my marriage basically. Ironically I’ve never been inside the cathedral itself. I’ve only ever wandered in and around -- either with my child or by myself or by walking romantically with my wife. Now I’ll never be able to see the inside as it was, which is a real shame.”

Poignant week for Catholics

For the Catholic community, the devastating blaze was all the more poignant for coming as it did in Holy Week, just days before Easter.

The church is home to many priceless relics, such as the ‘crown of thorns’ believed to be worn by Jesus Christ in the days before his crucifixion.

Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers. The Vatican released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the “terrible fire that has devastated the cathedral of Notre-Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world”.

Reno, 35, a freelance journalist and practising Catholic, had burst into tears as he photographed the blazing monument. “I was so overcome I had to go home and rest. It was very hard to watch the spire fall. But I came back here to pray. Notre-Dame is not just bricks and mortar. Every Frenchman and every Frenchwoman is grieving today.”

“I am heartbroken,” said Louisa, 30, as a crowd sang a solemn rendition of ‘Ave Maria’.

“But I am very touched to see so many people praying, imploring notre dame [Our Lady] to protect the cathedral.”

Notre-Dame may be one of the spiritual homes of practising Catholics in France, but the church’s loss was being mourned throughout French society.

“I get goosebumps listening to the prayers and hymns here,” said Larejj, 29, who was born in Algeria and moved to Paris when he was four.

“I was there when the spire fell, said Larejj, “and a gasp went up from the crowd. Two seconds later, there was total silence. It was unbelievable.”

He had felt completely powerless as he watched the blaze spread through the cathedral. “Religion aside, Notre-Dame is the symbol of Paris. There is nothing so emblematic of Paris as Notre-Dame.”

Kevin, 21, from Boston, had been on a river boat on the Seine with his family, when his mother first spotted the plumes of smoke billowing from Notre-Dame and drifting across the river.

He couldn’t believe his eyes when he first saw pictures of the cathedral ablaze on Twitter,  “I thought it was photoshop, that it was a joke,” said the student in international relations.

“But it’s such a solemn moment, I wanted to be here and share in the sadness.”

Applause for the firefighters

There was a pause in the singing. A man in the crowd led a round of applause for the Paris fire brigade. There was widespread relief that none of the 400 firefighters who had battled the fire, some of whom clambered up the left-hand bell tower when it was fully ablaze, had been seriously harmed. Later in the evening one firefighter was reported to have been injured.

But there was small comfort in the news, falling just before midnight, that the main structure of the church appeared to have been saved.

“But there are so many priceless works of art inside,” one man cried, and “the stained-glass windows would not have been able to withstand the heat.”

Only at 3:15am did the Paris fire brigade officially declare that the fire was under control.

Rebirth

Malik offered hope that the restoration of the church could bring a form of renewal. “Fire in a sense brings rebirth, that’s what it tends to symbolise in most religions anyway,” he said.

“There have been some huge tragedies and fires in spiritual buildings and they always seem to come back. Yorkminster is one of them. St Paul’s cathedral which is really the equivalent of Notre-Dame, was itself born of the Great Fire of London.”

Many Parisians seemed to be in shock that such a Parisian monument had gone up in smoke, and felt that the reality of the smouldering ruins of Notre-Dame would only hit them in the days to come.

“It’s a funeral,” said Kevin. “Paris is a beautiful city,” he said, “but it’s a little less beautiful now.”

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