PARIS — In the Gothic magnificence of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Cecile Deleville found a refuge for her soul.
It was Notre Dame that nudged her back to religion, and it is Notre Dame that has kept her there for 20 years. While tourists filed down the vaulted aisles, Deleville would sit in the front pews, her head bowed in prayer.
So when the cathedral went up in flames in the midst of evening Mass on Monday, it hit Deleville especially hard.
“I feel lost. I have to rebuild my life now,” she said, choking back tears. “I have to find my parish.”
The landmark in the center of Paris, from where all distances in France are measured, was the site of Napoleon’s coronation and survived the French Revolution and two world wars, ringing out their victories.
Today, it stands as the nation’s keeper, the spiritual heart of secular France.
Notre Dame isn’t a standard parish. Neither marriages nor baptisms have been celebrated there in years. But for those who worshipped there, it was most definitely their church.
One of those was Deleville, who at 66 is retired from her job helping the elderly.
Born into a family of atheists, she converted to Catholicism at 21. Her journey into faith wasn’t seamless. She later grew disappointed with the church and found her way back years later, to Notre Dame.
Despite living in Vincennes on Paris’ eastern edge, Deleville worshipped regularly, sometimes daily, at Notre Dame for two decades. It was her place of prayer, her place of contemplation, her source of strength.
She didn’t know other parishioners, sharing only the ritual sign of peace during Mass. But for Deleville, Our Lady of Paris was very much alive. She said there was something mystical about the church, something she couldn’t explain.
“Since 1999, I can say that if there is a place for me to take refuge, it is Notre Dame,” she said. “What I lived in Notre Dame I didn’t live in other churches — a rather exceptional experience.”
On Monday night, Deleville was too distraught to visit the site of the raging fire. Photos of the iconic spire consumed by flames, then toppling, were too devastating, she said.
“It’s hard not to be emotional,” Deleville said, her voice cracking and tears streaming down her cheeks. “For me, it’s Notre Dame. It’s not just stones.”
Some 24 hours later, she steeled herself and decided to take her first look.
With a friend holding her arm, she walked the short distance from Saint Severin church to a small street with a view across the Seine River to the landmark.
Her hand went to her mouth as the cathedral came into view.
She gazed silently, her shock visible. Finally, she spoke.
“She was so beautiful,” Deleville marveled.
She recalled the last time she took a photo of it from afar.
“There was this amazing light with the sun setting, which made her shine,” Deleville said. “And now, the sky is sad. The sky is sad.”
Like others who worshipped at Notre Dame, Deleville needs a new church. President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral in five years. Others say that’s overly ambitious.
In the meantime, Deleville said she would probably go to Saint Severin.
But don’t call her a parishioner, she said: “I will come as a tourist.”
Deborah Gouffran and Nicholas Garriga in Paris contributed.