‘My life was changed by Notre-Dame, now I want to share its amazing story’

The Notre-Dame fire sparked huge global interest and many intense emotions. But Nicolas Jeter was so affected by the disaster that he has decided to memorialise the cathedral with a children's book.

'My life was changed by Notre-Dame, now I want to share its amazing story'
Workers in the damaged interior of Notre-Dame cathedral. Photo: AFP

When Notre-Dame burned, we watched helplessly. The fire went from what seemed to be a containable problem to a column of bright destructive rage, like something directly from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.

For 850 years, Notre-Dame had watched over Paris as the city sprawled across the fields and across the ages, past the original medieval walls, through dynasties and revolutions and presidencies and wars, and now, it seemed, Notre-Dame would fall. 

IN PICTURES See the latest images from inside the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame

Photo: AFP

The world’s response to the fire was immediate, overflowing, and significant. Social media became a photo gallery of Notre-Dame, with people across the globe expressing their love for the cathedral and grief over such profound loss. 

It is difficult to explain why the response was the way it was. The story of the world’s relationship with Notre-Dame is a story of personal, individual experiences, not a collective one, so I can only speak for myself. 

For myself, I grew up in Southeast Texas on the Louisiana border. Like many in that part of the world, a major branch of my family tree is French but I had no reason to expect that I would ever spend any time in France.

I grew up in a world of petroleum refineries, alligators, and football games. Except for a few vestiges of Cajun French culture, I was about as far from France as one could get.  

Then, in total surprise to myself, and like so many Americans, I found my way to France. It took a lot of paperwork, planning, and time, but once I got there it felt like destiny, like I had always been there, would always be there, and would never find a reason to leave. I stayed for two years. 

The first time I saw Notre-Dame, it was a quiet, clear morning, light still hanging onto the darkness, mist and pigeons and the scent of baked bread all spinning together in the newness of dawn.

The square in front of Notre-Dame was nearly empty. I passed through the doors, beneath the stern watch of gargoyles and saints, and I looked up and saw what seemed to be largest room in the world.

How could such a majestic, precise, artful, mighty work have been put together from stone, by hand? Every surface, every painting, even the air seemed to contain the voices of the artisans, priests, sinners, soldiers, and saints that had walked her halls.

Those long-ago dead left a piece of themselves in those columns, in that stone. Notre-Dame was alive that day, very much haunted by the very best kinds of ghosts. I knew that I was standing on sacred ground, not because a religion said so, but because of the sacrifice that made it so. 

I was permanently changed by that experience, as if Notre-Dame placed a stamp upon my heart’s passport; each successive visit has only increased my wonder. Notre-Dame is both real and unreal, tangible and fantasy, like it is made from both watercolor and stone.

I look at Notre-Dame from the vantage of Today, but the cathedral looks back from 1482. I think a small piece of me always expects to see Quasimodo lurking behind the columns of the bell towers. 

Next year, I’ll be publishing a children’s book called The Girl and the Cathedral, that attempts to illustrate the history and story of Notre-Dame.

With such a broad subject, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the expanse of it, as well as it is easy to get lost in the details. In thinking about how I wanted to tell this story, I kept going back to the idea that the story of Notre-Dame is not the history of a building – it is the story of a people, and those people know Notre-Dame individually and personally. 

Accordingly, the story is of a small, mysterious little girl who plants a garden, and out of that garden grows Paris, and chief among the flowers of her garden is Notre-Dame.

We watch the little girl love and cultivate her garden, and worry over the growth of Notre-Dame, even as Notre-Dame watches over Paris through to the modern age. Above all, the purpose of the story is to provide a vehicle for each reader to place themselves in the story of Notre-Dame; each of us is literally a part of the legend. 

Because, ultimately, my experience is not unique.

People loved Notre-Dame before me and they will, thankfully, be able to continue to do so long after me. Each of us has been marked by the cathedral. From wherever we visit, we bring Notre-Dame home with us, and leave a piece of ourselves in return – It’s a supremely unfair trade, but also a wonderful one. 

Nicolas Jeter lived and worked in Paris for several years and now lives in Texas. The Girl and the Cathedral will be published on April 15th 2020, the first anniversary of the Notre-Dame fire. More information can be found here

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Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

France's Notre-Dame cathedral is finally ready to undergo restoration work more than two years after a blaze ravaged the heritage landmark, and remains on course to reopen in 2024, authorities said Saturday, following months of painstaking work to secure the building.

Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

The great mediaeval edifice survived the inferno on April 15th, 2019, but the spire collapsed and much of the roof was destroyed.

The focus until now had been on making the cathedral safe before restoration work could begin, which included the strenuous task of removing 40,000 pieces of scaffolding that were damaged in the blaze.

“The cathedral stands solid on its pillars, its walls are solid, everything is holding together,” said Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the public entity tasked with rebuilding the cathedral.

Scaffolding in the interior of the building as the restoration phase begins. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP

“We are determined to win this battle of 2024, to reopen our cathedral in 2024. It will be France’s honour to do so and we will do so because we are all united on this goal.”

The aim is to celebrate the first full service in the cathedral on April 16th, 2024 – five years after the fire – despite delays caused by the pandemic and the lead that spread during the blaze.

The Notre-Dame spire, a later addition to the medieval building, was completely destroyed in the blaze. Photos by AFP

Authorities will now call for tenders to select the companies to carry out the restoration work.

The cathedral’s interior walls and floors will also undergo “a thorough cleaning process” later this month.

Notre-Dame’s famous Grand Organ is already being restored, with its 8,000 pipes dismantled and sent to organ builders all over France.

It is expected to be put together again in October 2023, said Georgelin, the former head of France’s armed forces who was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee rebuilding efforts.