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Commentary: Trip from Sacramento to Paris turns tragic, but Notre Dame stands proud

On vacation from my home in Sacramento, I strolled through the Paris streets Monday evening. My sister called me crying to tell me Notre Dame was on fire.

“Sammy and I have only been in Paris since September, and the cathedral has been a central part of our lives. I can’t imagine the pain for the Parisians. The spire has fallen,” she said. “The one the architect put himself on so that he could watch over the cathedral.”

I returned to the apartment where I was staying with my sister, a professor on sabbatical, and her 11-year-old son. Like countless others, I watched online as the church burned. When the news reported the 13-ton bell may fall and Notre Dame might not be saved, I rushed to the cathedral to join others in prayer and prepared to say goodbye to Our Lady of Paris.

On the subway, I recalled the pageantry of Christmas Eve Mass in Notre Dame, where our California family had celebrated together. The choir echoed off the high ceilings and lent an otherworldly air as incense wafted above a large cross, floating down the nave. It was the first church service ever for my two teenage nephews from Davis.

I walked through the lively streets and made my way to a crowd of 300 separated from the Cathedral by the Seine River, held back by red-and-white emergency tape. I could see the south tower, with two streams of water feebly trying to reach the 200-foot heights. The crowd was tranquil. The quiet surprised me.

Two Parisian sisters in their 60s stood next to me. Françoise explained that Coraline had been consecrated at Notre Dame. I explained I was in Paris visiting my sister. I had received multiple messages of sorrow and horror from my friends in Sacramento.

“So, you are with us?” Coraline asked in French. Even without knowing the language, I understood her.

“The world is with you,” I said as tears streamed down my face.

The three of us held hands in prayer that the love and faith of Notre Dame radiate into the world. Then the sisters prayed in French. I could not understand the words, but beseeching is universal.

Soon we could see faint outlines of people halfway up the tower. When they reached the top tier, we hoped it was a sign the towers would stand. Françoise checked the news on her phone. The towers as well as the Cathedral’s structure were safe. A Frenchman hollered out the news and the crowd collectively sighed.

The sisters left for home and I walked to view the side of the cathedral. Streams of water flowed where the roof once arched between the transept and towers. Another stream jetted just below the famed rose window. Sparks were visible from remnants of the roof. Most striking was the red glow in the smaller rose window in the transept.

I stood with 200 people, most quietly gazing at the cathedral as a woman in the crowd sang a hymn.

A group of firefighters walked past with their shoulders slumped. The crowd cheered but the heroes were too spent to react.

I spoke with a Parisian couple in their 30s standing next to me. They had just come from choir practice. “That’s the reason we’re late,” he said. He had attended Mass at Notre Dame two days prior on Palm Sunday.

I said, “An American news station reminded us that the French and Notre Dame have lived through other intense hardships and come out strong.”

They both smiled.

A few gasped in the crowd, and we looked up to see sparks tumbling out of the small rose window. But the large one appeared solid.

When I asked the Parisian couple if they would pray with me, they sang a hymn so beautiful that the crowd was hushed.

The two hoses aimed between the transept and the towers turned off. Soon we could see high water rushing from the far side of the church reaching to the small rose window. The firefighters had found a way.

Notre Dame stood strong and noble and beautiful, as she has for centuries.

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