A monument that ‘defines’ our humanity: abroad students discuss witnessing fire at Notre Dame

Two Lafayette students studying abroad visited Notre Dame the day before the cathedral caught fire. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Lafayette student Nora Sweeney ’21 was standing on a viewing platform on the Eiffel Tower in Paris when a crowd began to form on the side of the platform facing the infamous Cathedral of Notre Dame. At first, she just saw smoke coming from the general area of the cathedral.

“There was an eerie silence [on the platform] as news began to spread about the fire,” Sweeney said in an email.

The fire that broke out at Notre Dame last Monday sent shock waves around the globe. The cause of the over nine-hour long fire, which resulted in the perish of the cathedral’s roof and spire, is not confirmed. Many relics, however, survived the fire.

Emily Cotter ’21 was also in Paris at the time of the fire at the cathedral. Sweeney and Cotter are currently studying abroad in Bremen, Germany, but were in Paris for their spring break.

Sweeney and Cotter both visited Notre Dame on Palm Sunday, but Cotter returned a second time on Monday, hours before the fire began. She planned to go back a third time on Tuesday to climb up the towers.

Sweeney and Cotter both said their initial fears were that the fire was an act of terrorism.

“My first thought was to tell my parents and friends that I was okay. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear in the beginning and rumors began floating around that it might be an act of terrorism,” Sweeney said.

Cotter had bought a Christmas ornament from the gift shop at Notre Dame the morning of the fire. She opened the box that the ornament was wrapped in and wrote the date on the piece of paper inside to “remember being there” that day.

“I was very stunned, having been there that morning,” Cotter said in an email.

While both Sweeney and Cotter described feeling shocked as they watched Notre Dame burn from only a few miles away, they also said that the local and global responses were “moving” and “beautiful.”

“I think that watching everything happen and seeing people band together, be it the firefighters working or the police directing traffic as people stormed the street, or the general global consensus about it, makes the world seem a bit smaller,” Cotter said.

Cotter also witnessed a group of people singing a song in French, which she learned was a mourning song, she said.

Alex Katz ’20, who lived in Paris from age nine to 11, said her childhood memories of visiting Notre Dame with her family made the news of the fire “sting” slightly more.

“Paris holds a special place in my heart. It was hard to watch on the news as the flames engulfed the building,” Katz said.

Art history professor Ida Sinkevic said Notre Dame is a “feat of engineering” and a “feat of Christianity” for the city.

“Christianity was very important in medieval Europe and celebrating religion in this enormous structure was also very important,”she said.

Sinkevic also said the cathedral is a “symbol” of the city of Paris.

“If you look at the cathedral, it was started in the 12th century, the west facade was built in the 13th [century], the towers at the end of the 13th [century], and the spire that fell was a 19th century spire,” Sinkevic said. “The cathedrals are really living organisms, they grow with the cities.”

She said the fire at Notre Dame may serve as a warning to other cities with medieval cathedrals or structures.

“The most important thing is that we reconstruct it and the other important thing is to take it as a warning and really put engineers to a task to bring those monuments that define us as a humanity up to a code,” Sinkevic said.

There was a hommage yesterday after deadline for print Wednesday.

About Morgan Sturm

Morgan Sturm '19 is the Managing Editor for The Lafayette. She is a Policy Studies major and Spanish minor.

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