Carla Knorowski cried as she sat on the couch at her Lake View home and watched news coverage of a fire tearing through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
It was April 2019. The smoke and flames struck a nerve.
Several weeks earlier, Knorowski, a professional fundraiser who’s raised millions for her alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, began working with Friends of Notre Dame de Paris on the organization’s board of directors.
Her mission was to raise money for the upkeep of the building. But it quickly took on a new purpose and sense of urgency as untold millions would be needed to restore and rebuild.
Knorowski organized a global virtual fundraising event whose participants included cellist and onetime Paris resident Yo-Yo Ma, actress Glenn Close, filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Scott Simon and Notre Dame Cathedral organist Olivier Latry. The event raised about $500,000.
More recently, she organized an event at the University Club of Chicago that featured the two French architects in charge of rebuilding the centuries-old cathedral. Her efforts were so successful they even grabbed the attention of France’s top leaders.
Knorowski, who travels to Paris frequently and was there just last week, donned a hazmat suit at the cathedral in July while touring the damage and progress that’s been made.
“The roof was lead and it melted and there was a lot of lead dust in the building, so I wore the hazmat suit to limit exposure,” she said. “The cathedral was a labyrinth of scaffolding.”
It’s scheduled to reopen in 2024, though restoration is slated to continue through 2030.
Knorowski, who continues to actively raise money for the effort, first laid eyes on the cathedral in the early 1980s.
In college, traveling with only a backpack, she voyaged to Paris. It was a feat for a girl from the Northwest Side who grew up under the impression that trips to Europe were reserved for 25th wedding anniversaries.
“I fell in love with it, and like Hemingway said, ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ Well, that really rang true for me.”
Knorowski, 63, began visiting towns named after Paris 12 years ago. She has visited every town in the United States named Paris.
“I thought, ‘They must also be special.’ So I went to see what they were all about,” she said.
In each town, she found a way to contribute.
In Paris, Arkansas, she judged a costume contest at a parade at the town’s Butterfly Festival. In Paris, Tennessee, she volunteered at the world’s biggest fish fry, where she slung baked beans. In Paris, Illinois, she attended a Paris High School basketball game and donated money to the school’s library.
“I really try to become part of the community. If I don’t come up with anything, I’ll take an empty plastic bag and pick up trash,” Knorowski said.
“Some people are like, ‘What are you doing? Why?’ They don’t get it. But the world is a big fun place, and you have to go enjoy it and let it be fun,” said Knorowski, who also enjoys running marathons.
Her support has not gone unnoticed.
In the fall, in a ceremony in downtown Chicago, French Consul General of the Midwest Yannick Tagand awarded Knorowski the National Order of Merit, one of France’s highest honors. Tagand pinned the hardware on her jacket and planted a kiss on each cheek.
“As far as we are concerned, she has played a crucial role. … She has been a friend of France for 40 years,” Tagand said, noting Knorowski’s travels and long history of charitable work and promoting shared cultural values.
Knorowski, who grew up near Belmont and Cicero, described receiving the award and a certificate signed by French President Emmanuel Macron as a “pinch me moment.”
“I was quite surprised and quite honored and very humbled to have received it. To just be recognized for something I would have done regardless,” said Knorowski, who is currently the chief development officer for the U.S. Naval War College Foundation.