notre dame

JMU French professor Christiane Szeps grew up across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral.  

Director of the Paris study abroad program, French professor at JMU and native Parisian Christiane Szeps has been glued to her TV since April 15 when fire ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral. Szeps was born across the street from the cathedral, and it became a major part of her life, as she watched it over the years and saw the impacts it has on many. She has led the Paris study abroad program since 2005 and gives the students a personal experience by indulging them in what each monument and institution means to her, especially Notre Dame.

“I always tell my students I opened my eyes on Notre Dame,” Szeps said. “I was born in the oldest hospital in Paris across from Notre Dame … It was traumatic for me because it is part of my life.”

The blaze erupted in the cathedral’s attic and progressed throughout the building for over eight hours before firefighters were able to tame it according to The New York Times. Because it was built over 800 years ago, the building was only equipped with smoke detectors. No other fire safety preventions were installed, so officials had no way to calm the flames at first. Workers were able to save a few relics and artwork, and there’s hope for rebuilding the structure since donors have pledged over one billion dollars for its reconstruction, according to The New York Times.

Szeps has led groups of over 15 students through Paris every summer since she started guiding the trip, allowing many members of the JMU community to experience her relationship with the city and Notre Dame.

“It’s incredible,” Kirsten Kazluaskas, a JMU alumna ('09), said.“I don’t consider myself to be a very religious person, but you walk in, and you have a feeling that there’s something bigger than yourself … It’s one of those places that everyone wants to be, everyone understands that it’s important.”

During her time at JMU, Kazluaskas traveled with Szeps to Paris three times. They stayed in the same district as the cathedral, so when it was in sight “It felt like home because it was in the same neighborhood of our daily lives there.” The students were given the chance to tour Notre Dame, including visiting the crypts and climbing to the top of the building. Szeps provides a new angle for students, sharing her connections and memories with every step such as explaining where she went to school or what restaurants are her favorite.

“Part of the reason I love Paris so much is because I got to see it through her eyes,” Kazluaskas said. “When we go out with her, she won’t only show us the ‘touristy’ sites or the founding of Paris in French history and culture, but we’d also see the city through her life. My reaction [to the fire] was I kept thinking about her and what she was feeling because while it’s an emotional reaction for all of us, she spent an entire lifetime in Paris, and Notre Dame was a walk away from her childhood.”

Szeps will return to Paris at the beginning of May to live in her apartment for the summer with her husband. They live about five months of every year in the heart of Paris, and she looks forward to soaking in the joy in Paris, Szeps said.

The aged, hand-crafted architecture of Notre Dame has consistently left visitors in awe and constantly attracts more people JMU professor of history John Butt said. He also believes the biggest loss in the blaze was the ceiling, which was made from an entire forest of medieval oakwood.

“They’ll be able to replicate it, the church had been severely damaged a number of times,” Butt said. “What we were looking at before the fire was not what was built in 1163 or even 1345 when the church opened. The steeple in the middle that collapsed was only built roughly one hundred years ago ... They’ll be able to replicate it but never replace it.”

Butt will lead a group of 14 students on a three week trip to Paris on May 5. While they had booked a tour for Notre Dame, they plan to still visit from a distance and view the site. With a boat tour on the Seine River, which lies next to the cathedral, there will still be an opportunity for the team to see the damaged remains of the building from the side.

“What happened is a wound to our culture, to our history, to the world’s culture and to French history,” Szeps said. “Perhaps people will wake up in terms of looking at the culture and history and what could happen. We are in the modern times, but we are the prey of things that are just beyond us.” 

Contact Bridget Murphy at murph2br@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.