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Every time I visited, I inhaled history: A Chicagoan’s tribute to Notre Dame

Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. | AP photo

Perhaps the best-known church in the world, Notre Dame de Paris — Our Lady of Paris — is going up in flames as I write this, heartbroken, sharing what must be a worldwide sense of loss. We are all diminished.

You don’t have to be French or Catholic or even Christian to understand the grief felt by hundreds of thousands, undoubtedly millions, around the world. This magnificent structure, more than 100 years in the making and continually beautified through the past eight centuries, is not only a great, historic piece of architecture, replete with superb stained-glass windows and a wealth of fine art, but it is a symbol of Paris itself — and thereby a universal symbol of Western culture.

It stands on the Isle de la Cite, the small island in the center of the Seine River on which the city of Paris was founded. With the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, it simply said to the world “this is Paris.”

As such, Notre Dame is one of the most visited of all tourist attractions, not only for the faithful but for any lover of art, culture or history. It is one of the first places almost every visitor wants to see, whether he or she revels in sightseeing or wants to reimagine the legend of the Hunchback hunkering down in his tower with Esmeralda.

OPINION

I have been going to Paris since 1954, and it was the first monument this Jewish kid sought out.

For more than a decade earlier in this century, I owned an apartment there — a 15-minute walk from Notre Dame — and on virtually every trip I visited the cathedral and found some new and previously overlooked little thing. Maybe it was something in the stonework, maybe an artifact inside.

For many years, until the crowds became too massive, there were free organ concerts on Sundays. That’s when I resented tourists the most.

There was something special about the sweeping vista inside of the church, the way your eye was almost forced to look upward toward the great crucifix and then to the superb rose windows, works perhaps second only to the windows at Chartres. Even the nonreligious can sense the magic and mysticism of the faith.

And now they are damaged or gone, possibly beyond any reconstruction.

Here in Chicago, we lost much in our infamous fire of 1871, but somehow Old St. Patrick’s Church survived it and remains, along with the Water Tower, a steadfast symbol of what was there before. Holy Name Cathedral was constructed three short years after the Great Fire, and it stands today as a symbolic of our city’s rebuilding.

Neither Old St. Pat’s nor Holy Name is world-famous in the way of Notre Dame. Of course not. But a loss of either at this point in our city’s history would be a cultural tragedy felt well beyond those who practice their faith.

In the midst of the ongoing troubles with citizen rebellions in France, the destruction of Notre Dame takes on an even more ominous tone — symbolic, to be sure — and, in Arthur Miller’s immortal words, attention must be paid.

I may never again see the many beauties of Notre Dame or inhale the sense of its history, and now neither may you.

Don Rose is a Chicago political consultant. He writes a column for the Chicago Daily Observer.