Local Catholic honored for fundraising efforts to restore Notre Dame Cathedral

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Carla Knorowski. (Photo by Mary Sylvester)

The first time Carla Knorowski visited Paris, she fell in love with the city.

It was more than 40 years ago, and she was backpacking through Europe with college friends. Their first full day in the French capital was a Sunday, and they attended Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral.

Fast forward to October 2022, when Knowrowski, a graduate of St. Genevieve School and Madonna High School, was honored with the National Order of Merit from the French government, mostly for her efforts to raise money for the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral as part of the U.S.-based charity Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

“With your experience, your power of conviction, your energy, and your many friends and contacts, you are a precious ally of the cause of the Notre-Dame and much more broadly to the French-American friendship. For what the restoration of Notre-Dame means to us. For all you have been doing in your different capacities. This is why I am truly honored to present to you, on behalf of the President of the French Republic, this very important distinction,” said Yannick Tagand, the French consul general in Chicago, who presented the award Oct. 8, 2022, according to the consulate’s website. 

For Knorowski, who describes herself as “a Francophile who doesn’t speak French,” the honor was unexpected but much appreciated.

She had already traveled frequently to Paris when, in the spring of 2019, she was introduced to the president of the board of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

She was in Paris, she said, to work with the Paris-Chicago sister cities committee, which was planning to install a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Paris. That project is ongoing. Knowroski previously served as the chief executive officer of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, and has written two books about the 16th president.

Knorowski, a professional fundraiser for more than 30 years, was invited to serve on the board of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

“At the time, they were raising money for a restoration project,” Knorowski said, noting that parts of Notre Dame are more than 800 years old.

Three months later, she sat in her Chicago home watching on television as flames engulfed the roof of the cathedral.

“When the fire was occurring, I was wondering whether there would be any work for us, other than maybe to do a commemoration project,” she said.

While Notre Dame’s roof and spire were destroyed, and other parts of the cathedral suffered significant damage, restoration efforts are ongoing; French officials expect the cathedral to reopen to the public next year and for reconstruction to continue until 2030. They have estimated the cost at 846 million euros; Knorowski believes that once final costs come in, they will top $1 billion.

Knorowski organized one virtual event after the fire that included virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actress Glenn Close, filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Scott Simon and Notre Dame Cathedral organist Olivier Latry, raising about $500,000.

Overall, people from more than 130 countries have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to efforts to rebuild Notre Dame through several different organizations, she said.

The fact that Notre Dame is in Paris does make it a little more difficult to raise money here, Knorowski said.

“It’s more difficult in the U.S. because it’s not an American cathedral,” she said. “But it is a World Heritage Site. It’s place for people around the world to either worship or revere as an architectural site.”

To raise money, Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris appeal to different groups in different ways. Some might be most interested in its architecture, some in its history. Many Catholics want to see worship restored at Notre Dame, she said.

“There are different affinity groups and we reach out to them all the time,” Knorowski said.

Knorowski’s career in fundraising started when she was hired — she thought — to write and edit the newsletter at her high school alma mater. When she took the job, she found out that the actual title was director of development, and she would have to raise money for the school as well.

“Then, it wasn’t something people knew about,” she said. “I kind of learned step by step. Now you can get a degree in it.”

The key is to know your audience, and why they want to contribute.

“The biggest mistake in fundraising, besides not asking for a gift, is thinking people will give money just because of your [organization’s] reputation,” Knorowski said. “Donors and philanthropists are very savvy. You have to present very tangible projects and programs to fund that have good results.”

Knorowski gives back in other ways, as well. In the late 1980s, she spent a week volunteering at Lourdes, cleaning the hospital and serving meals to the sick who were there. She wrote about that experience, and how Lourdes was involved in her upbringing, in an upcoming book, “Courage on Tap: A Lourdes Memoir.” Some of the proceeds of the book will be donated to the Notre Dame reconstruction fund.

She also has set a goal of visiting all of the other cities and towns named Paris, because of her love of Paris, France. So far, she’s been to about 30 Parises, including all of them in the United States.

“I try not to go as a tourist,” she said. “I want to go like I live there, and what do you do when you live in a community? You give back.”

She has served at a pancake breakfast in Paris, Missouri; washed the windows of a charity shop in Paris, Maryland; and cleaned trout pens in Paris, Michigan. She contributed money for a monument to fallen coal miners in Paris, Arkansas, and to a fund for a baseball field and equipment for kids in Paris, Puerto Rica.

Asked which Paris — besides the one in France — she likes best, she laughed and said, “That’s like asking a mother who their favorite child is.”


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