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Naperville woman on a trip to Paris watches as Notre Dame gutted by fire

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5 days ago Suzanne Baker
fireworks in the sky © AFP/Getty Images

Sophia Foreno rounded a corner in Paris Monday to find a sight she did not expect: Notre Dame Cathedral in flames.

Foreno, a jewelry designer from Naperville, and her artist husband have been in Paris for the last week seeking inspiration for their work.

But their trip took an abrupt turn Monday as they joined Parisians in mourning the near-destruction of the historic structure, construction of which started in 1163 and was completed in 1345.

“It was extremely jarring to see. You don’t expect to see the most iconic building in the city go up in flames,” she said.

Just the day before, on Palm Sunday, Foreno had walked along the river Seine buying trinkets from vendors before venturing inside the cathedral.

a close up of a person wearing glasses © Sophia Foreno

“I lit a candle in Notre Dame yesterday. How weird is that?” she said.

Officials say Notre Dame Cathedral towers saved after fire ravages Paris landmark »

For about 30 minutes, Foreno and her husband joined throngs of people along the river Monday to watch as the devastating scene played out before police ushered them away.

Foreno said she shared tears with a young Parisian woman named Eva who was distraught over the situation.

The two watched in shock as a young girl held up her phone to take a smiling selfie as the fire burned behind her, she said.

a group of people in front of a building © Sophie Foreno

“It was kind of bizarre, taking a selfie, and Eva said, ‘Can you please not do that? That is a symbol of my country,’” Foreno said.

“I told Eva, you did the right thing,” she said. “I felt like it was disrespectful for the situation at hand.”

Eva started crying and Foreno couldn’t help but be overcome as well, she said. “This is a hard thing to see,” she said.

As the crowd was moved away from river banks, Foreno said she and her husband returned to their hotel four blocks away. As they walked, she said, she saw “people were just standing there with tears in the eyes.”

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Norval Bard, a professor of French and chair of the North Central College’s Modern and Classical Languages Department, said that to Parisians, the cathedral is more than just the top tourist site in France.

“While Americans might think the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of the city,” Bard said, “(the cathedral) is the literal and figurative heart of the city.”

Bard, who has led numerous student tours of France over the years, said when distances are measured between Paris and other cities, a spot in front of Notre Dame is used as the starting point.

The site itself has been used for religious purposes before Roman times, he said. Once the Gothic structure was finally finished, “it was a symbol of urban architecture.”

The cathedral not only survived French Revolution, he said, but also a movement in the 19th century to tear down old buildings, which promoted Victor Hugo to pen his novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The story led to a revival of the cathedral.

Bard described the images of the fire as “heart-rending,” particularly since he walked up the tower’s stairs in December.

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