By Chris Stone and Ken Stone
“For me, it was losing my grandmother.” That was the first reaction of a French-born pastor in Solana Beach upon learning Monday morning that fire was gutting the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
He said he cried.
On the second day of Holy Week, the Rev. Gérard Lecomte, pastor of St. James and St. Leo Catholic Community, was checking news online when he was stunned to see that the iconic 850-year-old church was ablaze.
For an hour, he was glued to French TV coverage of the tragedy in Paris, near where he studied in a seminary. He also attended Mass and organ concerts there.
NBC News has reported that the cathedral is still considered structurally sound and that art work, including some 13th century rose window glass, the Treasury (where Christ’s Crown of Thorns is believed kept) and the organ have been saved.
The cathedral’s Treasury has stored artifacts such as a purported piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on and nails from the cross, sculptures and paintings, some dating to the 1600s.
Statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists were removed from the site last week.
“Each Frenchman’s fiber is part of it,” the 71-year-old Congregation of Jesus and Mary priest said of the cathedral. “We venerate it; we invest in it. … All of the French people have a particular relationship with Notre Dame.”
Lecomte, pastor in Solana Beach since September 2017, said, “Notre Dame has been there as a witness of all the events in Paris and France. I remember the bells at the Liberation of Paris during World War II in 1944, when they rang. This is still kept in our memories.”
The sound of the eight bells is recognizable to all Parisians, he said.
Commenting on French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that the cathedral will be rebuilt, Lecomte said Paris has workers who specialize in carving stones and building walls, using techniques that date to the Middle Ages.
“I am sure a lot of benefactors will help,” he added.
For the French, seeing the destruction of the famous cathedral is akin to living with someone for a long time, “thinking like they would never die,” Lecomte said.
The first step for the cathedral’s rector and archbishop will be to find a place for his parishioners to gather for the rest of Holy Week, possibly Les Invalides church.
Cause of the blaze hasn’t been discovered yet, but Lecomte speculated that someone might have been “imprudent with electricity” during restoration that has been ongoing for a year.
The restoration centered on shoring up the towering spire that burned and collapsed in the fire Monday.
The blaze also touched Jack and Helen Ofield of Lemon Grove.
Helen said that when they were traveling in connection with a TV series they produced (“The Short List Showcase for International Short Film”), they were in Paris twice a year from 1994 to 2008.
The Ofields “never failed to visit Notre Dame in all weather, at different times of day, to absorb its beauty, majesty and stunning artwork and architecture, the music, the charm and uniqueness of the adjacent Hotel Dieu (hospital), which we worry about,” Helen said.
They’d also visit the famous Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. bookstore nearby — “an annual pilgrimage into history that became part of us.”
Helen, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, said: “We are shocked that the French government pays nothing for its 800-year-old tourist attraction of worldwide significance, and that the Catholic Church has had to raise all of the money for the repairs and renovations.”
She called the original repair cost of $6.8 million “peanuts for such an undertaking.”
“We hope there is worldwide criticism of such disregard and that the French government will begin to underwrite some of the cost of bringing back its tourism meal ticket,” she said.
Local political figures and media types also shared thoughts.
“I’m distraught by the flames and destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral,” said Rep. Susan Davis of San Diego. “As the French people declare their hope to rebuild and save its precious art and architecture, we acknowledge their pain and love for all it represents.”
Congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar tweeted early in the coverage: “Praying for the people of Paris as they try and save what remains of the Notre Dame cathedral from fire.”
I’m distraught by the flames and destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral. As the French people declare their hope to rebuild and save its precious art and architecture, we acknowledge their pain and love for all it represents.https://t.co/XyZ6gfbmdx
— Rep. Susan Davis (@RepSusanDavis) April 15, 2019
It hurts to watch. https://t.co/l0JvwYLHGg
— Lorena (@LorenaSGonzalez) April 15, 2019
Praying for the people of Paris as they try and save what remains of the Notre Dame cathedral from fire.
Officials say they have 1 hr to save 800 years of sacred history.
“There’s a risk that the great bell falls. If the bell falls, it’s the tower that collapses. https://t.co/1RHoFLn3ba
— Ammar Campa-Najjar (@ACampaNajjar) April 15, 2019
Ten years ago, I went to France with the choral scholars of the University of San Diego. We sang an Ave Maria in front of the altar in Notre Dame. I’ll never forget the way every sound echoed through the cathedral, the light streaming in through the windows. This is a tragedy. pic.twitter.com/U91Zf98g9A
— TormentedByGnomes (@TrmntdByGnomes) April 15, 2019
So heartbreaking!! 😢. Fire causes spire collapse at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris https://t.co/ccheLqxE9S
— Lauren Phinney KUSI (@LaurenKUSI) April 15, 2019
Attending mass at #NotreDame 6 years ago will forever be one of my favorite travel memories. The peace felt inside the cathedral is unmatched. Watching history destroyed hurts my heart. https://t.co/YxqoO1WrLp pic.twitter.com/c4RUWJFsIk
— Monica Garske (@GarskeNBC) April 15, 2019
— Ryan Trabuco (@RyanTrabuco) April 15, 2019
Visited #NotreDame on my honeymoon. Horrible to see it burn. We have live coverage right now on @10News on the efforts to save the cathedral. We’re also talking with San Diegans who are in Paris for 10News at 5. pic.twitter.com/fgMaprbhL8
— Jeff Lasky (@10NewsLasky) April 15, 2019
This is so heartbreaking watching Notre Dame burn. 😢 pic.twitter.com/4SQEa2qq2f
— Kyle Kraska (@KyleKraska) April 15, 2019
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