News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, April 25, 2019
A universal grief for the Notre Dame fire burns deeply in Castine

Remembering a visit to Notre Dame

Ariel, Hilary and Lesley Nelson were with Todd Nelson on a trip to Paris, and Notre Dame, in July 2007.

Photo courtesy of Todd Nelson

by Monique Labbe

Ten days ago, on April 15, flames engulfed the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and while responders worked diligently to minimize damage, those who had visited the centuries old church grieved around the world.

Todd Nelson, a Penobscot resident and one of the teachers responsible for starting an exchange student program between Castine and St. Castin, France, said that when news of the fire broke, his whole family mourned. His last visit to the cathedral was in 2007, he said, and he remembered standing in the exact same place crowds gathered to sing hours after the fire, at Parc St. Julien le Pauvre.

Maine Maritime Academy French professor and Castine resident Amy Gutow echoed Nelson’s immediate sense of sadness.

“One aspect of the cathedral that has always inspired awe and wonder for me is its age,” she said of the structure that has survived for nearly 900 years. “How can we wrap our minds around what this kind of time frame means? I think this is why I cried at the site of Notre Dame engulfed in flames last week. Despite 900 years of steadfast presence in Paris, we risked losing this great architectural masterpiece in a matter of minutes to fire.”

While the church’s spire and ceiling collapsed, the two main towers, artwork, statues and other iconic items were saved from serious damage. As the flames were put out and announcements came that the landmark was not a total loss, those in Paris and around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

One young woman who was close to the fire that day was Sotherd Steer, a Castine native and George Stevens Academy graduate now living just 15 minutes from where Notre Dame stands above the city.

“The response in France the night of the fire was fear and heartbreak. Many thought the fire would destroy the main structure. What would Paris be without Notre Dame?” she said.

Steer is a teacher at an international school in Paris, and she said that the next day, the students could talk of nothing else other than what they had seen on the news or in person the day before. For her, the worst part, she said, was “to see hundreds of years of history literally go up in flames.”

“I celebrate the French firefighters, who are highly trained and responsive. Overall, I’m happy the main towers were preserved and that many of the relics and statues had already been moved,” she added.

The cause of the fire has since been determined to have been electrical, and the city of Paris, and those around the world who have a place in their hearts for Notre Dame, can begin the process of healing.