In churches, plazas, playgrounds, Parisians find strength in gathering

On Sunday, with the city in a reflective mood, churches were packed, and many headed to the statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP
People gather for a national service for the victims of the terror attack at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Sunday. Thousands of French troops deployed around Paris on Sunday and tourist sites stood shuttered in one of the most visited cities on Earth while investigators questioned the relatives of a suspected suicide bomber involved in the country's deadliest violence since World War II.

The Eiffel Tower stood dark Saturday night, the perfect expression of the stunned stupor that persisted across Paris after living through one of the worst terrorist attacks in European history. But as sunshine embraced the city Sunday, Parisians arose to channel their anger, fear, grief, and determination together.

Streets that were empty yesterday were filled as residents searched for a sense of community, packing into churches that are normally empty, lighting candles at the sites of the worst terror Friday night, and amassing in public plazas even though a state of emergency forbid it.

Paris, on one hand, has experienced this moment just recently. It’s been less than a year since it was sent into mourning after Islamic fanatics attacked the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in January. Yet on the first Sunday after that attack, Parisians knew where to go. They joined more than a million people at Place de la Republique who marched, along with 40 heads of state, down the main boulevards of central Paris.

It was a perfect expression of solidarity in a deeply secular country that was reclaiming exactly what terrorists sought to hit: their freedom of expression, religion, and thought.

Today, there was no single rallying call. Instead, the mood was reflective, with the sense that anyone living here could have been hit. And it appeared that individuals processed this realization in clusters, wherever they found relief.

Impromptu reflections

At Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie, a Roman Catholic Church on the Right Bank, not far from where the terror was unleashed, regular parishioner Nana Sumah says the pews are normally empty. Today the church was filled to capacity, with visitors forced to stand in the back. In one section, only one man of some 50 knew the words to a hymn, which he sang loudly, without self-consciousness. 

“I am a believer, so my religion gives me hope,” Ms. Sumah says. “But many non-believers are here today to also find light.”

At the American Church in Paris, on the city's Left Bank, the pews were crowded with multitudes of Americans and English speakers, as well as tourists who simply wanted to grieve with the city.

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, gave a closed mass at Notre Dame Cathedral to honor the victims. Parisians and tourists alike who had hoped it would be open settled for standing outside in prayer.

Along Rue de Charonne, where gunmen took almost 20 lives at the shuttered La Belle Equipe bar, dozens of people, many of them weeping, left candles and heartfelt notes. One note was signed by two women to another who was killed. “We’ll remember you forever,” they wrote.

And at Place de la République, Jacqueline, a young mother with two children in tow, headed to the statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. It was her second visit this year – but this time she went with a heavier heart. “It’s not just one [type of] people or journalists [as Charlie Hebdo]," she says. "It’s everyone.”

Another visitor to the site, Didier, a Frenchman who wanted to give only his first name, commuted from the suburbs in camaraderie with his fellow citizens. “I [want to] improve the feeling by being present here, to do a little thing at my individual level,” he says. “I heard about spontaneous meetings going on here, and I came to feel the difficult mood together with other Parisians.”

'Life goes on'

Normalcy remains elusive. While Parisians showed defiance in gathering at the large plaza during a state of emergency, a panic broke out in the evening when many thought they heard gunshots, causing a frightening stampede of hundreds. An American expatriate living nearby opened her house to 10 people who were physically shaking, worried that another terrorist attack was launching.

Museums remained closed, as did public pools and gyms. Even Disneyland was shuttered. There are barricades across the city, as well as “canceled" signs. Many cafes and restaurants have not yet reopened. But Alain, the owner of L’Absinthe Café on the corner of Rue Volta, less than half a mile from République, says he opened – he even hosted a birthday party the night before – to help bring back life.

And indeed, on an unseasonably warm and bright Sunday, Parisians slowly began to clamor for seats at such popular outdoor cafes, to find perches along the Seine, and to take their children to playgrounds across the city.  

“I have a strange feeling [but] life goes on, so I am open,” Alain says. “We’re not going to let anyone stop us.”

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