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Locals mourn for Notre Dame

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Marylaura Papalas


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Residents in eastern North Carolina joined the world in mourning the fire that badly damaged Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday.

The Associated Press reported the fire “collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers but Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church’s structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to the northern belfry.”

Across multiple social media platforms individuals shared photographs taken in front on the cathedral and stories about their time in Paris.

“I was there in ‘99 and have been going through my scrapbook comparing my shots to the devastation,” Brenda Edwards wrote. “My sister and I were brought to tears when I called her.”

Marylaura Papalas, associate professor of French in the East Carolina University Department of Foreign Languages & Literature, is traveling to Paris this summer to conduct research. 

“As soon as the news broke out about Notre Dame I was getting text messages almost immediately, mainly from the francophone community here in Greenville. Just so concerned, watching from a distance,” she said. “The fact that is could survive the Middle Ages, where entire neighborhoods would burn down in Paris; it survived the French Revolution. Here we are in the 21st Century. It’s done something to the community here for sure.”

Papalas’ mother is French and family members who still live there are heartbroken.

Located on the Île de la Cité, the cathedral is in the heart of Paris and its residents view it as more than a tourist destination.

“It’s a place where people have gathered for important events in the center of the city. It’s kind of the symbolic of the heart of the city. It’s a living monument to France’s cultural history,” Papalas said. She paused, searching for words. “To see it burn, it’s just tragic.”

Marilyn Velez and her husband Jose Santillan took their children, Elyssa Mercado and Sebastian Santillan, to Paris in 2015.

“My husband and I are so grateful we were able to take our kids to see this beautiful cathedral,” Velez said in an email. “ I know at the moment, for them it didn’t seem like a big deal but now they can look back and know they saw it at its glory. This is a major loss to Paris and all visitors past and present.”

Papalas said when she was child her mother took the family to France every summer to visit family who lived in a village.

She doesn’t remember the first time she saw Notre Dame. The family rarely went to Paris to take tours.

“I remember the first time I went inside,” she said. “It’s a very sacred space, very dark and cool on the inside. Sometimes when you go in there is praying and a Mass may be going on sometimes. It’s a meditative space. It’s immense, it’s huge. It’s kind of an overwhelming experience. Just the beauty, the sheer size and magnitude of the building itself.”

Later, as she studied and worked in Paris, Papalas walked by the Notre Dame daily.

“When you pass by it, it has a certain gravitas because it survived through the ages and because it represents so much cultural history. And because it is just such a beautiful building,” she said. “It’s probably the most obvious reason why this is so devastating, it’s just a beautiful building.”

Veteran educator Karen Klaich was a 16-year-old high school student when she first visited Notre Dame in 1977. She has returned to the city three times since 2010, first to train as a guide for educational tours then escorting high school student tour groups in 2011 and 2015.

“I was in Notre Dame on Easter Sunday in 1977,” she said. “For a small town girl that was a huge thing.”

Not only was she overwhelmed by the size of the structure, it was the first time she attended a Catholic worship service. A protester also ran down the aisle, shouting in French.

“All of us were just awestruck by how beautiful it was. How huge it was. How old it was. It’s over 800 years old, we don’t have anything in our country that old,” Klaich said. “It was that whole first international travel experience you get that opens the whole world to you.” It’s why she worked to offer travel opportunities to her students during her career.

It’s just incredibly sad,” she said. “I’ve seen on social media some of the students I took on these two trips and they are just devastated. For many of them this was the first time they had ever been out of the country. These are places they see in movies and in books and then there you are, right there. It’s been devastating for them as well.”

Washington, N.C., natives Sara and Jonathan Coburn live in Aix-en-Provence, located about eight hours from Paris in the south of France.

Jonathan Coburn is a post-doctoral researcher for the science division at ITER, the world’s largest international fusion research project.

They had just finished watching “Game of Thrones” with friends when news about the fire appeared.

“I’ve always wanted to see Notre Dame but now I’m not sure that I’ll be able to,” said Sara Coburn, who previously worked at The Daily Reflector.

Coburn said Notre Dame holds a “mythical place” in her heart after learning about it in her French classes.

“I’m hoping to go to Paris sometime this summer, so I’m hopeful that I can at least see the outside of the cathedral,” she said. “The idea that I won’t be able to get to see what I’ve thought about a lot and have always imagined as a center point of Paris, as well as France, is really disappointing and heartbreaking.”

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.