Woodlawn shrine to rebuild

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, March 6, 2016

Parishioners at the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest will have reason to celebrate with joy and gratitude on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19.

That’s when the community will gather at Mass and at a festive St. Joseph Table to give thanks for the donors who saved their church at 6401 S. Woodlawn Ave. from the wrecking ball after the building was severely damaged by fire on Oct. 7

“St. Joseph is the master builder,” noted Canon Matthew Talarico, the U.S. provincial superior of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the international community that operates the shrine.

The Archdiocese of Chicago announced Feb. 28 that it had deeded the building and the property to the institute so that it could work to rebuild. The community has about $1 million on hand to start the project.

“That was one way of understanding this is God’s will for the community,” Talarico said. “He gives you want you need. Not all at once, but what you need for the next step.”

The largest chunk of the money – about $650,000 in pledges – came from donors working through Preservation Chicago, a non-profit dedicated to architectural preservation. The institute had about $300,000 it had raised to go to the church restoration before the fire, and it raised more than $60,000 in a Go Fund Me account after the fire.

The institute first saved the church building – originally St. Clara Church, built in 1923 – from demolition in 2004, when it came to Chicago with its mission of celebrating the Tridentine liturgy. The same year, the city of Chicago designated the building as a historic landmark.

The institute embarked on a long-term plan to restore the building, but that plan came to ashes with the October fire that took about three-fourths of the roof and did extensive damage to the church interior.

After the fire, the archdiocese sought and received a permit to demolish the church’s remains because they posed an imminent danger to the community.

Talarico said that the institute asked engineers to begin drawing up plans to shore up the walls and begin replacing the steel trusses for the roof with supports that will stabilize the building and serve as the base for a new roof system.

The institute also will contract with a demolition company to clear out the interior as soon as possible, to give the engineers better access, he said.

Meanwhile, the community will continue to hold liturgies in the space they have dubbed “The Upper Room,” the upstairs gymnasium of First Presbyterian church, 6400 S. Kimbark Ave. That’s where they will celebrate the Mass of thanksgiving at 10 a.m. March 19. The meatless St. Joseph’s Table lunch will follow at noon in the church hall of the same building.

Talarico said the Mass and reception will provide an opportunity for members of the parish, many of whom drive from outside the area to worship there, and friends and neighbors to come together.

“We have a longstanding relationship with our neighbors in the Woodlawn community,” he said. “We offer a forum where they can meet one another, talk about projects like neighborhood cleanup.”

Some of the strongest voices calling for the church to be saved came from the Woodlawn and Hyde Park communities, with residents and neighborhood groups joining with preservationists to form the Coalition to Save the Shrine.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said his group was active in efforts to save the shrine in the early 2000s.

“Once a building has been part of our preservation efforts, we do feel we’re committed to it, until it’s preserved or lost,” he said. “We form relationships and do whatever we can to ensure good preservation outcomes.”

Miller praised everyone involved for working together, including the canons and the archdiocese, which worked to make sure that the church would remain as a Catholic institution, especially since it is the only Catholic church remaining in Woodlawn.

After the fire, archdiocesan leaders said the archdiocese could not afford to rebuild the building itself, but would consider a proposal from the institute to rebuild or find the institute another South Side church building.

Talarico said talks came down to the wire, concluding days after the archdiocese had a demolition permit for the building. He expressed gratitude for the willingness of archdiocesan leaders to look for a way the shrine could move forward.

Once the building is stabilized, the institute will continue to look for ways to raise money to finish the restoration, perhaps by raising the shrine’s national profile. There are preliminary plans for a documentary about the shrine and its rebirth, he said, and members of the community are looking for grants that might apply to their situation.

“Rebuilding is really in the DNA of Chicago,” Talarico said. “What we are working on now is to win support to do something positive for our neighborhood, which is in a recovery area.”


  • st. joseph
  • shrine of christ the king sovereign priest
  • woodlawn
  • institute of christ the king sovereign priest
  • latin mass
  • historic preservation

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