Although as a child he had visited Notre Dame, Laurent de Villiers hadn't really begun to appreciate the centuries-old Paris cathedral until he started to regularly attend Mass there.
De Villiers, who grew up on the west coast of France, now lives in Lincoln with his wife, Renee. In 2013, they opened The Normandy in Lincoln. They sold the French restaurant in 2017.
Before settling in Lincoln, the couple moved to Paris in 2006, and while there often attended Sunday evening Mass at Notre Dame.
"There's something very special about the sound of the organ and the lights," Laurent de Villiers said. "It was always so magical. I was very near to Notre Dame."
De Villiers said he was "heartbroken" when he saw footage of Notre Dame in flames Monday. The fire caused extensive damage to the cathedral, which had survived the French Revolution and two World Wars.
De Villiers said he couldn't count how many times he had been to Notre Dame, which left him in awe every time he attended Mass there.
He said with the cathedral playing a central role in several books and movies, including Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," seeing the building in person was an entirely different experience.
"You're almost looking for whatever it is that you remember, you want to find it," de Villiers said. "It's like walking in a museum."
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What surprised him the most about the cathedral were the areas that the original builders didn't intend for the average person to see.
"If you go in the tower and you see the details in there and the way it was done, the workers that did it, they didn't do it for the glory," he said. "They didn't do it because they wanted everybody to be in awe. It was a gift to God that nobody was going to see."
That had a big impact on de Villiers, who said his Catholic faith hadn't been important to him until he started attending services at the cathedral.
"And so, for my faith, for my spirituality, I thought maybe that I need to look into doing the good and the beautiful not where people can see," he said. "The inner self, rather than the outer self."
Monday's fire wasn't the first time de Villiers had a connection to a French tragedy. In November 2011, he appeared on a French TV show with Stéphane Charbonnier, whom he befriended. Charbonnier, who was director of publication for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, was killed along with 11 others during a shooting at the paper's offices on Jan. 7, 2015.
De Villiers said he's grateful for the outpouring of support from Americans and others around the world who want to help repair Notre Dame. But the destruction of such a symbolic edifice has affected his entire country.
"I think a lot of French people feel the same way today, that beyond the material, there is something spiritual, a symbol in there," he said.