Broadcast around the world, the images of fire creeping across the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral, as pluming smoke traveled over the Paris skyline, were as arresting as any in recent memory.
To those who have visited the towering 12th century church in person, for religious and sightseeing reasons alike, the sight knocked the wind out of them. At least one person from South Jersey witnessed it from her window.
“It all feels a bit surreal,” said Caroline Housel, 23, an Egg Harbor Township native who lives and works in Paris. “Even though I could see the smoke all night from my apartment, which is about a 30 minute walk from Notre Dame, I still have trouble believing it happened.”
The most frequently expressed feeling among South Jersey residents who saw Notre Dame in past trips to Paris, and then watched the roof go up in flames Monday, was awe. Some visited nearly 30 years ago; some stood before the cathedral earlier this month.
The feeling of being in its shadow left none of them.
Officials in Paris said investigators are treating it as an accident. Though a spire collapsed before shocked onlookers, authorities said the building remains structurally sound and that irreplaceable relics and works of art, including stained glass dating to the Middle Ages and the relic revered as Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, are safe.
“I think everyone is thrilled that the two towers and a majority of the interior remained intact, that many religious relics were saved,” Housel said, “and, most importantly, that no one was hurt.”
The pastor of St. Katharine Drexel in Egg Harbor Township, the Rev. John Vignone, said he was last in Paris in 1990, part of an Oberammergau tour, referencing the once-a-decade performance of the Passion Play in the German town. Notre Dame was a highlight.
“It was awe-inspiring,” Vignone said. “Seeing the cathedral and the history attached to the cathedral is incredible.”
Gary Hill, 61, of Atlantic City, traveled with friends and family to Normandy in early April. They started the trip in Paris and saw Notre Dame.
“I just … I cannot believe it, because it was literally like 10 days ago,” he said. “We sat right across from the cathedral for lunch.”
As a Catholic, he found the cathedral’s architecture in particular, “just overwhelming.”
Mare Garrett Foust, 49, of Egg Harbor Township, traveled to Paris in 2013 and 2015, and was particularly excited to see Notre Dame the first time.
A Presbyterian, Garrett Foust was more interested in the art and architecture, but left with a feeling the place was “magical.”
“It just had this unbelievable, ethereal feeling to it,” she said.
She saw the news Monday at the airport while scrolling her Facebook feed.
“Right before I took off, I saw the spire fall, and it was just so devastating to see that, knowing that it can never be recreated,” Garrett Foust said. “And, again, thinking of all these men that spent 300 years building this for it to fall into such wreck and ruin.”
Vignone said watching the cathedral burn was horrific but serves as a reminder that, in Catholicism, the church is not a physical place but the people who fill the pews.
About 30 percent of New Jersey residents identify as Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew study, one of the highest percentages in the country.
“The building is a reflection of the people and the faith that put it up,” Vignone said. “And it’s something that can’t be replaced. It can be rebuilt.”
The incident likely means Easter Sunday Mass will be moved as debris is cleaned and officials formulate a rebuilding plan. Three of France’s richest families, by Tuesday afternoon, were leading a fundraising effort that has seen nearly $700 million raised for its reconstruction so far.
“I have no doubt that Notre Dame will be standing tall once again in the very near future,” Housel said. “(Monday’s) fire will become a negligible event in the course of its rich religious and cultural history.”