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Washington native reflects on experiences at Notre Dame Cathedral

66 years ago Wilfrid Vittetoe climbed onto the roof to see the best view of Paris

GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske

Wilfrid Vittetoe visited the Notre Dame Cathedral in the summer of 1953 while he was stationed nearby serving in the U.S. Army. Vittetoe climbed out onto the roof to get this picture of himself with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske Wilfrid Vittetoe visited the Notre Dame Cathedral in the summer of 1953 while he was stationed nearby serving in the U.S. Army. Vittetoe climbed out onto the roof to get this picture of himself with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
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His grandkids will never get to see the famous spire on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but Wilfrid Vittetoe has. Not only did he see it, 66 years ago he climbed out on the roof of the building to see what else the city had to offer.

“We were young guys and feeling in good condition, we were going to see it all while we were out. One thing leads to the next and we got up on top of that tower ... I said ‘I’m going to climb up on that roof,’” he recalled with a laugh. “So that’s what I did.”

In 1951, Vittetoe was drafted into the U.S. Army and eventually ended up in France by 1953. His base was about 5 miles from the train station and he took every opportunity to explore.

“The Army ran a bus in to the railroad station several times a day, and so we would take the bus in to the railroad station and buy our ticket there,” he said.

One day he and a few buddies decided to see the city and wound up at the Notre Dame Cathedral.

“As I recall, there was no security. We walked all over wherever we wanted to,” he said.

He and his buddies toured the whole building before finding a door that led to an outdoor space. They walked out onto the terrace and looked around before Vittetoe decided he could scale a portion of the roof to get a better view.

“It was quite an experience,” he said of being in the cathedral. “That’s world renown and I guess for a little farm boy from Iowa, that was a big deal and this friend of mine, he was a rancher from Colorado. I kind of related (because) we hadn’t traveled a lot before the Army.”

The inside of the cathedral was quite overwhelming to him because it was much larger than anything he had ever seen. His favorite thing inside was thankfully one that survived Monday’s fire.

“The stained glass windows, of course,” he recalled. “I didn’t have a colored camera and you can’t do justice to them without standing there and looking at them.”

That December, he took the train back into Paris and visited the cathedral again to attend Christmas Eve Mass. He said the building was packed full of people and he made his way as close to the front as possible.

“It was quite an experience, too,” he said.

When he heard the news of the fire on Monday, April 15, he was saddened, but it got him thinking about his experiences and the memories he made visiting in the early ‘50s.

“I really couldn’t believe it at first,” he said. “That’s when I got to thinking, ‘I’ve got some pictures of that building.’”