Stepping out of his front door near Paris' Île Saint-Louis, Benjamin Poussard made his way toward the Pont de la Tournelle, a bridge crossing the Seine River. With plans to meet his wife to celebrate his birthday with a night out, he spotted smoke rising above the Île de la Cité, the island where the famous Notre Dame Cathedral sits at the heart of Paris.
"It was horrible," Poussard said, describing how he watched flames engulf the roof of the city's most-visited tourist attraction. "People from all over Paris were converged on bridges, watching the smoke rise."
Realizing the magnitude of what was happening, Poussard rushed home to get his camera, returning to the site where crowds of people filled the streets and bridges surrounding the small island at the city center.
A member of the Paris Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Poussard lives mere blocks from Notre Dame and said he could feel the heat from the flames as he stood some 200 yards away from the Catholic cathedral while snapping photos to send to the French media.
"I passed people crying in the streets. And I personally cried when I sent my pictures to the press," Poussard said, his voice becoming strained with emotion. "That island is where Paris was born. It is the cradle of Paris."
Together with the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame is one of the two great symbols of Paris, said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé.
“It is an iconic edifice that testifies to the extraordinary faith and dedication of those who built it,” said Bishop Caussé, who was born in Bordeaux, France. “It has been at the heart of the French history and culture for eight centuries, and all French people embrace it as their own whatever their religious beliefs.”
Bishop Caussé and his wife, Sister Valérie Caussé, who have lived previously in Paris, were in the Boston airport when they received a message from their daughter-in-law in Paris saying Notre Dame was on fire.
“We immediately connected to the French news," he said. “First we had a hard time believing what we saw, then when we realized it was all real, our hearts broke and we couldn’t help but feel sad, extremely sad.”
Sister Caussé said her thoughts immediately turned “to the faith of those who dedicated their lives to building this magnificent house of worship. My heart also turns toward my grandparents who transmitted to my generation their pure faith and love for Jesus Christ.”
The cathedral, which has a history of more than 850 years, is perhaps one of the most important historical monuments for all of France, said Father Brien McCarthy, a Catholic priest who presides over L'église de la Madeleine, which stands several blocks northwest of the Île de la Cité.
With around 14 million tourists frequenting the cathedral each year, Father McCarthy described how he loves witnessing a change in people who visit it, even if they aren't religious.
"There is something about the brick and mortar stones, placed there by believing people, that can communicate to people. They know they are on holy ground, and it's not because the place is holy, but because it is made holy by the faith of the people there," he said.
The fire, which is believed to have been caused by ongoing construction to restore parts of the cathedral's roof, began shortly before 7 p.m. on Monday, April 15, in Paris. It was a sad and unfortunate event, said Father McCarthy, adding that if it had to happen, he couldn't imagine it happening at a better time.
The fire began on the Monday of Holy Week, a week in which Christians celebrate the life of the Savior, leading up to Easter Sunday and commemoration of His resurrection.
"If there is a moment when Christians should be ready to mourn the death of something, but to believe in the resurrection of something, it's Holy Week," Father McCarthy said.
"It is my belief that something is going to rise from these ashes," he said, noting that even the pagan myth of the phoenix and the ashes can bring hope after the day's events.
Describing the reactions of several priests from the area, he said, "We were all blown over by these events, but I know that it doesn't shake our faith. No matter how old or ancient your faith is, it can take a hit sometimes and we have to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same way, even when we see catastrophe in our own lives. In the end, it's just a building, but on the other hand, buildings become sacred by the people who assemble in them."
By tradition, each year some 600 priests from all over Paris assemble together with the Archbishop of Paris at Notre Dame and gather around the altar there to celebrate the Eucharist, or the sacrament of Christ. But, due to the catastrophic fire, this year on Wednesday of Holy Week, the priests of Paris will have to assemble somewhere new, Father McCarthy said.
Expressing his condolences for all those feeling the loss of Notre Dame, Bishop John I. Hall, who leads the Paris Ward with its meetinghouse located only blocks north of the scene of Monday's fire, said, “Notre Dame is the heart of the city so it's really tragic to see it, but we feel a unity to all Christian faiths through it. It's a sad day to see this happening, but I have every faith that people will come together around this and rebuild and help bring it back to its glory.”
President Paul J. Sorensen, president of the France Paris Mission, reported that missionaries from around Paris spent the evening calling in to confirm their safety following the tragic fire and that by around 10 p.m. all missionaries were confirmed safe. He noted that many missionaries expressed their sadness at witnessing the destruction of such an important international icon of faith.
Many of the missionaries in the area have spent time near the cathedral while working together with their Catholic brothers and sisters to serve the people of the community.
Father McCarthy expressed his gratitude for the many young Latter-day Saint missionaries who have volunteered in an associative charity restaurant connected to L'église de la Madeleine and spent time learning about France, its people and its history. Sharing together in serving one another and learning of one another's cultures edifies everyone, he said.
Notre Dame belongs to all of us, said Bishop Caussé. "I would like to tell my brothers and sisters of the Catholic faith that … we stand all around them to support them and sustain them in rebuilding this beautiful place."
Members of the Church experienced a similar loss in recent years when the historic Provo Tabernacle caught fire. "But we experienced a beautiful rebirth into a temple," Bishop Caussé said. "So I just hope that will happen in the same way; that our brothers [and sisters] of the Catholic faith will see that beautiful building being reborn and becoming again a house of worship for thousands of people."
Construction on historic buildings can often be a cause of concern for potential fires, Bishop Caussé explained. But he said the Church will be taking extra precautions as reconstruction efforts soon begin on Pioneer-era buildings of the Church.
The fire at Notre Dame, said Bishop Caussé, “is a tragic loss beyond words that all French people and millions of others around the world will feel deep in their heart. Reconstruction will be long and complex, but I have no doubt Notre Dame will one day rise from the ashes.”