Our Lady Weeps: Firsthand Account of Notre Dame Cathedral’s Restoration
The literal translation of “Notre Dame” is “Our Lady.” On April 15, 2019, the whole world wept along with Our Lady as we watched, with horror, the unthinkable, calamitous destruction of the great shrine to our heavenly Mother.
I traveled 5,000 miles to Paris to see in person what remains of the ancient wonder we call the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I found the cathedral “weeping” on a cold, rainy day, as if still suffering from the unbearable wounds inflicted by the tragic fire that consumed the structure on that terrible spring day. The blaze was so devastating — and yet the glorious church still stands, unyielding and unbowed. Through the cold rain, I could see the proud outline of the façade, rising in hopeful tribute to the faith of the medieval artists and craftsmen who began construction in the year 1163 — and the faith of today’s artists and craftsmen who are rebuilding this beautiful church.
Notre Dame has stood for centuries as “a symbol of an enduring church and God’s enduring presence,” in the words of David French. Cathedrals are symbols. The majestic edifices were community efforts, erected as testaments to faith.
Great accomplishments like this beautiful cathedral were done because ordinary men and women saw their work as a form of worship. That same faith is evident today, with more than 1,000 people working to restore what has been lost.
It is practically a miracle that the restoration has been possible. When the fire happened, some experts were doubtful that it could be saved.
Even though the scars were still visible in places as I scrutinized the entire exterior, there is also clear progress on replacing what has been lost and repairing what is still intact.
There has been a great deal of progress on the restoration; the cathedral is expected to reopen in December 2024, in line with the goal set by President Emmanuel Macron. More than $1 billion has been raised to fund the reconstruction.
Philippe Jost, managing director of the French government agency overseeing the reconstruction, noted that “the result will be faithful to the original architecture,” and “we are sticking to the vanished shapes of the cathedral. We are also sticking to the materials and construction methods of medieval times. We don’t do concrete vaults that look like stone; we do stone vaults that we rebuild as they were built in the Middle Ages.”
As I returned, day after day, taking photographs and observing every facet of the exterior, I felt the same sense of loss as the French people.
The pain was almost physical as I realized how close we came to losing this precious architectural tribute to the Blessed Mother.
Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Cloisters branch in New York City, said it best: “Civilization is just so fragile. This great hulking monument of stone has been there since 1163. It’s come through so many trials. It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass — it’s the totality ... the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for the French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”
The Notre Dame I visited wasn’t just a beautiful building, it wasn’t just a marvel of medieval architecture, and it wasn’t just the center of the French nation. It was a symbol of an enduring Church and God’s enduring presence.
Standing guard over history, it has been exalted but has also endured many abuses, suffering through the French Revolution, world wars, and even previous restorations and modifications. The chiming of the 13-ton South Tower bell, known as Emmanuel, which was installed in 1685, marked the rise of Napoleon and the end of two world wars.
No, Notre Dame is not just an icon or an attraction or a superficial check box on a tourist’s to-do list. It is a sanctuary for the weary, the hopeless, the repentant, the pilgrim. It is the refuge behind the glow of the sun through the Rose Window.
As I documented the cathedral’s wounds, reveled in its beauty and found solace in the divine presence, I rejoice that what we thought was lost will be returned to us, just as our faith returns our souls to God, and Our Lady will weep no more.
Ron St. Angelo writes from Dallas, where he is the photographer for the Diocese of Dallas.