‘It’s more than memories – it’s France’; French expats in Philly wonder if Notre Dame will be restored

A hole is seen in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday in a more than 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers and the purported Crown of Christ. (Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP)

A hole is seen in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday in a more than 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers and the purported Crown of Christ. (Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP)

“Notre Dame est en feu,” read a text message from Sophie Degât-Willis’ mother Monday afternoon — “Notre Dame is on fire.”

Degât-Willis was doing research in her office at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches French when she received the message.

At first, she didn’t understand her mother’s text, which was sent from her native France.

Then, Degât-Willis went online.

More than 500 firefighters fought the flames that set the Notre-Dame Cathedral’s wooden roof aglow.

The church, which took almost 200 years to build and is more than 850 years old, is a gothic icon in Paris with its gargoyles, two bell towers, and stunning stained-glass rose windows.

“I saw the first images like, ‘Oh, it just caught fire. We don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Degât-Willis said. “Then, I kept watching and watching and watching.”

She saw the 300-foot spire collapse on a live video stream.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was so surreal.”

A symbol of life

The cathedral is one of Europe’s major tourist attractions, drawing almost 12 million visitors each year. But for Degât-Willis, who grew up in a Parisian suburb, Notre Dame was a precious landmark, a signpost marking stages of her life.

When she was young, her family would travel to the capital city by train, and Degât-Willis says the cathedral was the first thing she would see exiting the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame train station.

When she started university in Paris’ Latin Quarter — across from the cathedral and the Seine River — her association of the church and the city strengthened.

“I would do this commute every day,” Degât-Willis said. “I would leave my boring town, go into the grimy train, and then the first thing I would see in Paris was the cathedral. For me, it was really the symbol of new beginnings, a new exciting life in Paris and my future.”

Degât-Willis remembers blowing out the candles on her 18th birthday cake with her friends — right in front of Notre Dame.

Sophie Degât-Willis blows out the candles on her 18th birthday cake outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. (Courtesy of Sophie Degât-Willis)

Still, for all of the meaning the cathedral has imbued on her life, the fire has made Degât-Willis realize she has no memories of going inside. She says it’s likely she did enter the walls as a child, but if she did, she can’t remember.

‘We cannot replace that’

Despite extensive roof damage and the destruction of the spire, firefighters were able to save the structure of the massive church after battling the flames for almost five hours.

News outlets reported that some of the relics and artwork contained in the cathedral were saved, but those reports didn’t reassure everyone.

“It’s more than memories — it’s France. It’s the past,” said Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix, founder of Lacroix Restaurant at The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia. “Can you imagine? It took 200 years, 300 years to finish. We cannot replace that, it’s impossible. I hope we can do something, but I don’t think so.”

Lacroix is from Dijon and has been inside the cathedral a couple of times. Though he can’t pinpoint his earliest memories of Notre Dame, the cathedral impressed him when he was very young.

“I don’t remember much of it, but the look of it, the outside, was just magnificent for me. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen,“ Lacroix said.

He had to turn his television off because he was so distressed by the images of Notre Dame ablaze.  

“Can you imagine, wars after wars, it was never destroyed,” he said. “Just a fire destroyed it.”

Others are more optimistic.

Millions pouring in for repairs

“They have these people in France who work on monuments, that’s all they do, and I’m sure in a few years we’ll get it back,” said Chef Olivier Desaintmartin, owner of Caribou Café in Center City.

He lived in Paris for seven years in what he called a humble apartment.

“From the roof, we could actually see the roof of Notre Dame, and I would never forget that moment,” he said.

Olivier Desaintmartin, chef and owner of Caribou Café, mourns the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral as he prepares for an event at his Center City restaurant. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Desaintmartin said he goes back to France every year. While there, he always goes through a familiar sightseeing circuit in France, which includes the Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame.

“I don’t care if I see Notre Dame 100 times, I have to see it,” he said. “This is so monumental. It’s part of my youth.”

“We will rebuild Notre Dame,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. “Because that is what the French expect.”

French billionaires have already pledged more than $450 million to restore the cathedral.

Degât-Willis shares Desaintmartin’s hopes in that the church can be restored, but, like Lacroix, she has some reservations.

“Even if they’re able to restore it and rebuild it, it’s just never going to be the same,” she said. “It was a work that took hundreds of years to accomplish and it was so much history just in the making.

“I don’t know, I’m hoping for the best, I hope they can try to restore it in a way that can still be visited.”

When and if the cathedral reopens to the public, Degât-Willis hopes to someday take her 1-year-old daughter inside.

Sophie Degât-Willis’s daughter, Mila, is photographed in front of the Notre Dame cathedral during her first trip to Paris in the summer of 2018. (Courtesy of Sophie Degât-Willis)

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