NI woman living in central Paris: It’s the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen – I cannot believe this

A fire at one of Christendom’s most iconic places of worship has been met with disbelief by an Ulsterwoman who has lived 50 years in Paris.

Notre Dame cathedral, dating back 850 years, suffered colossal damage after a blaze took hold before 6.50pm.

Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Ruth de Saint Hilaire (nee Mann), who was born in Belfast and moved to the French capital in the 1960s, tonight told of her utter dismay and devastation at the inferno.

“My sons telephoned to tell me,” said Mrs de Saint Hilaire of the fire, which has led to messages of regret from political leaders around the world including President Donald Trump. “It is part of me,” she added, “I love the place – not being a Catholic, but a Christian I suppose. It is the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen.”

The president of France Emmanuel Macron tonight spoke of the “emotion of a whole nation”, and said the world was witnessing nothing less than “part of us burn”.

Echoing such language, Mrs de Saint Hilaire said “I am there” as she watched live TV from her apartment in Paris’s 16th arrondissement.

She first set foot in Notre Dame on a visit to Paris for her 16th birthday, and visited it regularly after moving to the city decades ago. Audibly distressed, she said: “I don’t believe it is happening. I just hope it is an accident. If it is anything else, it is not possible.”

Mrs de Saint Hilaire last set foot in Notre Dame a year or so ago, but did not go inside much in recent years because of the queues of tourists.

But she loved to sit in the Shakespeare and Co cafe on the left bank of the River Seine and look across to the cathedral’s twin spires. “I am an architecture fan. It takes your breath away, it still does.”

Reflecting a sense of trauma felt across France, she said: “I am terrible.”

Officials said the fire may be linked to renovation work French media reported.

The Catholic archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin wrote this message online tonight: “Heartbreaking to see the sacred and historic Notre Dame cathedral engulfed with flame. Sending prayers from Ireland to Archbishop Michel Aupetit at the Diocese of Paris and the people of Paris.”

The Facebook page for Monkstown Parish Church, a large imposing 18th century Anglican church in Dublin, said tonight: “Any of us who have the stewardship of historic and iconic buildings live in dread of such events.

“Our prayers this evening for the whole cathedral community and for those who love this building dearly.”

One of the city’s oldest and most recognisable buildings, work began on Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in 1163. The first stone was laid in front of Pope Alexander III.

The original structure was completed nearly 200 years later, in 1345, and its name translates to ‘Our Lady of Paris’. Some 13 million people now visit the Catholic landmark every year – more than 30,000 every day on average – according to its official website, and it is believed to be the most visited structure in the French capital.

The spire, which collapsed during yesterday’s fire, has undergone several changes in the building’s history.