A group of students and chaperones from Gardiner Area High School pose Sunday evening in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Photo courtesy of Amber Dostie

Traveling to Paris and seeing Notre Dame Cathedral in its full glory is an almost indescribable experience, as is seeing the magnificent structure engulfed in flames.

Several groups from Maine were in Paris over the weekend and Monday, some of whom were able to view the cathedral hours before a fire devastated the historic church.

Students from Lewiston and Monmouth visited Notre Dame Cathedral on Sunday, the day before the blaze badly damaged the iconic building, and a group from Portland’s Waynflete School saw it hours before the fire.

“They thought it was a joke,” said Lindsay Kaplan, a French language teacher at Waynflete and one of the chaperones for the school’s week-long trip. “Then they started getting text messages from their parents asking if they are safe. No one’s saying terrorism, but it’s always in your mind.

“Them being here, that coincidence, which has nothing to do with us, will have a lifelong impression on these kids. I think it’s going to become part of their narrative in some ways. I was there that day. I was there right before it burned down.”

Parent Barbie-Jo Green Clement of Monmouth said she and students from Monmouth toured the cathedral Sunday as part of an educational tour offered by EF Tours.

Paula Gerencer, a French teacher at Lewiston High School, said the Lewiston Travel Club was also in Paris on Sunday.

Messages sent to Clement and the Lewiston Travel Club were not immediately returned.

A group of 28 students from Gardiner Area High School was among the last to see the cathedral before it caught fire, according to Amber Dostie, a history teacher who was with the students.

Dostie said touring the cathedral was not on their schedule, but they did take pictures in front of it earlier in the day.

“As a history teacher, this is devastating to see something like this happen,” she said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming, the odds of it happening while I am here.”

Amy and Andrew Page, who live in North Yarmouth, had gone to a restaurant Monday with their 2-year-old daughter for a quiet evening out in Paris. But as they sat down to order their meals, they looked across the Seine at Notre Dame Cathedral and saw wisps of smoke and eventually flames leaping from the historic structure.

The Pages, who remained at the restaurant for more than three hours, had a front row seat to a tragedy of epic proportions. Notre Dame stands about 100 meters from Comme Chez Toi, the restaurant where they planned to dine.

“When we went outside (the restaurant) we could feel the heat from the flames,” Amy Page said in a telephone interview with the Portland Press Herald.

“At first, we thought the fire would be quickly contained, but that is not what happened,” said Page, who attended a Palm Sunday service at the cathedral with her mother, Fran Barrett, of Connecticut.

Mother and daughter both love history and art.

“We are all still pretty overwhelmed and shocked by what happened,” Page said.

Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese wrote in a statement that “the world has lost a beloved symbol of Christianity.”

“The Cathedral of Notre Dame has served as a beautiful center of faith for countless generations of Catholics and as a source of inspiration and architectural brilliance for the millions of tourists who were blessed to visit it,” Deeley wrote. “It is difficult to process this tragic loss.”

He added Maine churches should “ring their bells as an invitation to prayer.”

Dave Guthro, communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said, “The diocese always works with local fire and safety personnel” to make sure fire prevention plans are in place. And, he added, “all Maine churches are naturally insured.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Jessica Lowell and Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.