The April 15 blaze that destroyed much of the 13th century oak roof of historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, felled its emblematic spire and exposed the 850-year-old monument to Catholicism to the elements broke countless hearts.
Just as the last tourists strode into the Gothic structure where holy Mass had concluded the day after Palm Sunday, flames lapped at the walls that have witnessed the coronation of monarchs and the beatification of Joan of Arc.
Authorities ruled out terrorism, charging the fire to an accident as investigation continues.
A multitude soon surrounded the crown jewel of the Ile de la Cite, one of two islands from which the City of Light was born on the river Seine. Grief, awe and disbelief marked onlookers’ faces, transfixed, as if memorizing each feature being devoured by the inferno. Some dropped to their knees. Many cried. Others sought strength in singing Ave Maria.
Smoke still billowed when offers to donate toward rebuilding began pouring in, reaching $1 billion three days after from working parishioners to local business titans like the country’s richest man Bernard Arnault, owner of LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (E200 million), Francois-Henri and his father Francois Pinault, CEO of Kering (E100 million), and the chiefs of Total and L’Oreal (E100 million).
From this country, Disney CEO Bob Iger pledged $5 million. The governments of Greece, Czech Republic and Poland volunteered restoration experts.
President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild in 5 years, a timetable viewed as unrealistic, since the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, has yet to complete restoration from damages incurred in World War II.
But new technology raised prospects of easing reconstruction and would probably rely on laser scans produced in 2015 by Belgian-born art historian Prof. Andrew Tallon, who died last year in New York. In fact major repairs were already underway when the fire broke.
Amid the sweeping generosity prompted by national pride, detractors spoke up, particularly from the populist Yellow Vest movement for economic justice initiated last November in the very city. Critics said the money could be used instead to feed the hungry or save smaller struggling churches in the city devoted to its patron saints Genevieve and Denis.
From another continent, China sympathizers took to social media to claim justice for the torching of the Old Summer Palace by joint French and British troops in1860 during the Second Opium War. Said war followed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to open ports to trade and diplomatic ties with the west that led to the cession of Hong Kong Island to the UK.
“Notre Dame de Paris,” which is French for “Our Lady of Paris,” honors the Blessed Virgin Mary. Over 12 million from around the world visit the landmark yearly, according to the city tourism office, more than any of the grand historic sites in Paris, including its oldest church St. Germaine de Pres, Sacre Coeur Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
Built on the ruins of two basilicas, Notre Dame Cathedral has survived damage wrought by humans and nature after Pope Alexander laid its foundation in 1163. In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor at its apse after the French Revolution. Victor Hugo further immortalized it in his 1831 novel “Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
Pilgrims come for various reasons.
Most visit to pray: It is an active house of worship. Some come to view sacred relics like the Crown of Thorns believed to have been forced on the head of Jesus; a 9-inch piece of wood supposedly a remnant of The Cross, and the garment of St. Louis – all saved from the recent fire. Others study its ingenious architecture, especially the storied flying buttresses that shore up exterior walls. Artists appreciate its Rose Windows, stained glass circular windows traditional in Gothic architecture.
Some visit out of a sense of duty, perhaps in fabled filial connection.
My family lore insinuates that a Catholic priest, a Frenchman, sowed his Gallic seed in a devout Southern Tagalog maiden who delivered the first of our forebears. The clergy who strayed from his holy mission supposedly had blue eyes, the same hue that flashed whenever my father expressed displeasure, often over a politician with whom he disagreed, sometimes for a dish over or under seasoned, but mostly due to his irrepressible daughter’s many adolescent adventures.
Frank, unshy, questioning: Whence did those atypical Filipino characteristics come?
We are proud Filipinos, 93 percent Astronesian, 23andMe found from my biological sister’s DNA sample. The personal genome and biotech firm asserted that our blood relations go back to about 200 years on any of the 7,100 islands in the Philippines. The rest of us originated from sub-Saharan Africa (wow!) and western Europe (could it have been our lusty ascendant, notre pere vigoureux?)
In my heart I treasured my alleged French heritage, identifying not with her who mocked the hungry to eat cake but with those who stormed the Bastille and ultimately wrested power from the absolute monarchy. People unimpressed by opulence impress me.
Shamelessly I turned Francophone, learned to speak the language, and reminded both family and friends to please pronounce my name correctly, the way my parents always did: It’s French for “sweetheart,” you know, I’d goad with the typical eye roll and disdainful puff.
France was not the first country in Europe I visited, but it is the one to which I’ve returned most times, the one my beloved and I have celebrated Easter, our birthdays, our wedding anniversaries – civil and church. Or just because.
“My second home is in Paris,” a pillow declares in our living room, from the favorite cousin who likewise entertains our fictitious ancestry.
So I stopped in my tracks upon finding my morning TV program preempted by breaking news footage of dark clouds enveloping a familiar site. Sirens blared as tongues of fire rose from the center of the medieval marvel, demolishing what locals lovingly called “the forest” for the 5,000 oak trees harvested for its massive roof.
We were there last September for a few days of warmth after a damp romp of the British Isles. We skipped the crowds, played local, rode the Metro, frequented our favorite brasseries, strolled the parks, watched schoolchildren line up at the patisserie to buy lunch, walked along the Seine: From there we glimpsed the now-gone spire over the flying buttresses of the cathedral that actress Salma Hayek called “this spiritual, cultural and historical treasure” that her billionaire husband Pinault and his father pledged to help rebuild.
At every visit anywhere, I’d bump into fellow Filipinos at home on or passing through the same shores.
Through San Francisco Bay Area-based online magazine Positively Filipino, I connected with former San Franciscan Randy Diaz, who schooled me on Parisian immigrant realities.
“There are two kinds of Filipinos living in Paris,” the retired bank executive said over the phone as we planned to meet up. “Those like us who keep a flat as a home here as a base for our European vacations, and those who live here to work.”
The two micro-communities rarely intersect, I gathered from our conversation. He was kind to invite us to dinner at the Ile St. Louis home of a friend with other visiting Manilans, but our schedules did not jibe.
The two communities may think they have little in common besides race, but in fact they share that typical Filipino hospitality, an inherent inclination to assist.
One time a woman we met at an open market bought a head of tuna she said she would cook for dinner – sinigang, with ingredients from a Filipino store. Where? At Avenue Victor Hugo, where Filipinos congregate, she gave instructions, setting our destination for the next day. And there indeed was store after store owned and staffed by Tagalog or Kampampangan-speaking folks, including building contractor Brandy Castro, who invited us for tea at his home to meet his three children. First-generation Filipino French teens who spoke fluent French and Tagalog, they shook their heads when I asked if they spoke English.
While waiting for the traffic light to allow pedestrians to cross at another visit, I complimented a Filipina for her designer tote and got an offer for her to take me to the factory outlet just outside the city, if I would be staying long enough till her day off as a nanny. We barely spoke for 5 minutes and she was already volunteering to save me some euros and escort me to her shopping haunt.
This last trip, we ventured into a Turkish cafe in the Montparnasse area, where we sat next to a table where three locals were speaking French: a Caucasian woman, a Hispanic man and an Asian woman. When the man’s cellphone rang, he started speaking in Spanish. And being me, I asked – in Spanish – if he was originally from Spain.
Actually he came to France from Mexico, he replied, quick to ask why I spoke Spanish and what country did I come from?
By then we had captured the attention of his companions, who were interested to meet this Californian. But did I say I was born in the Philippines?
“I’m from the Philippines!” declared the woman with beautiful brown skin and luxuriant black hair who was only too happy to connect.
Pampanga native Doris Timoteo Chanvallon, Yanina Davalos and Miguel Mena are employed by the state as museum employees. Next time around, they said, we should stay with them and get to view French cultural treasures together.
I thought about them as Notre Dame burned, knowing how much they cherish their new home and the national artifacts in their loving care.