PARIS – In the stones soaring skyward and the Gothic magnificence of Notre Dame Cathedral, Cecile Deleville found a refuge for her soul.
She was there three days before an inferno devastated the cathedral in the midst of evening Mass and less than a week before the Christian celebration of Easter.
“I feel lost,” Deleville said, choking back tears. “In a way, I have to rebuild my life now” just as the cathedral must be rebuilt. “I have to find my parish.”
The landmark in the center of Paris, from where all distances in France are measured, was the site of Napoleon’s coronation and survived the French Revolution and two world wars, ringing out their victories.
Today, it stands as the nation’s keeper, the spiritual heart of secular France.
Like others for whom Notre Dame de Paris was a place of worship, Deleville needs a new church. President Emmanuel Macron has promised the landmark will be fully restored in five years.
For the 66-year-old Deleville there is no replacement for Notre Dame, where she worshipped regularly, sometimes daily, for two decades. She said it’s likely she would go to the nearby Left Bank church Saint Severin.
“But I will come as a tourist,” she said.
Deleville, who lives in Vincennes on Paris’ eastern edge, said she was drawn to Notre Dame for the history it embodied. But above all the cathedral offered an experience she described as “a bit mystical” when she prayed within its walls.
“What I lived in Notre Dame I didn’t live in other churches, a rather exceptional experience,” she said, adding that the mystical aspect was personal, something she was unable to speak about with others.
Deleville, retired from her job helping the aged, always took her place in the front pews. She didn’t know other parishioners, sharing only the ritual sign of peace during Mass.
Notre Dame is not a standard parish. Neither marriages nor baptisms have been celebrated there in years. With hundreds of thousands of tourists admiring its splendors, the cathedral belongs to the world.
For Deleville, Notre Dame was her place of prayer, contemplation and source of strength. Our Lady of Paris was very much alive.
“Since 1999, I can say that if there is a place for me to take refuge, it is Notre Dame,” she said.
Born into a family of atheists, Deleville converted to Catholicism at 21. Her journey into faith wasn’t seamless. She grew disappointed with the church experience and found her way back years later, to Notre Dame.
She couldn’t bring herself to visit the site of the raging fire Monday night. Photos of the iconic spire consumed by flames, then toppling, were too devastating, she said.
“It’s hard not to be emotional,” Deleville said, her voice cracking and tears streaming down her cheeks.
“For me, it’s Notre Dame. It’s not just stones,” she said. “It’s been here for I don’t know how many centuries. It belongs to Parisians, the French, the world. Everybody comes here.”
For her, putting the cathedral together again begins with “the hearts within each of us, and the stones will follow.”
Steeling herself, Deleville decided to take her first look at her beloved cathedral.
With her friend Benedicte Havas holding her arm, she walked the short distance from Saint Severin church to a small street with a view across the Seine River to the landmark, some 24 hours after smoke and flames began spewing skyward.
Her hand went to her mouth as the cathedral came into view. She gazed silently, her shock visible.
“She was so beautiful,” Deleville finally said.
She recalled the last time she took a photo of it from afar. “There was this amazing light with the sun setting, which made her shine … And now, the sky is sad. The sky is sad.”
Deborah Gouffran and Nicholas Garriga in Paris contributed.