Shrine of Christ the King making progress following fire

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Shrine of Christ the King making progress following fire

The Shrine of Christ the King, 6415 S. Woodlawn Ave., is in its second phase of restoration on Nov. 25, 2019 after almost being completely destroyed in October 2015 by a devastating fire. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A new roof has been installed in the shrine building. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Work continues on the building's interior. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Masonry work has been done on the outside of the building. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The interior of the shrine on Oct. 11, 2015, just days after the fire. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The interior of the shrine on Oct. 11, 2015, just days after the fire. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The Shrine of Christ the King in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood is slowly coming back to life after a three-alarm fire devastated the church on Oct. 7, 2015, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Since then, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest — an international religious community serving in 17 U.S. dioceses and 12 countries — has been painstakingly rebuilding the church. The shrine serves as the community’s U.S. headquarters.

Over the past three years, the institute invested $4 million in the building, located at 6401 S. Woodlawn Ave., adding a new steel frame roofing system, a new roof with metal decking, a drainage and gutter system and masonry repairs. The limestone facade received fresh tuck-pointing since the mortar was about 100 years old. Everything is fireproofed.

“After we did the initial cleanup, which was costly itself, we put about 24,000 new bricks in the building. The walls are very thick,” said Canon Matt Talarico, U.S. provincial superior. 

Insurance didn’t cover all of the repairs, so the institute has been raising money for each phase of repairs and using local contractors.

It awaits city approval of engineering drawings for the heating, plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems. Then it will begin the next phase of repairs, which it estimates will cost $6 million. The institute has raised one-third of that money in cash and pledges.

“It takes a lot of work and costs money to put into it, but it really makes for a longtime investment of this building to be truly worthwhile and to take care of it so it’s there for future generations,” Talarico said.

Donations have come from not just local supporters but those around the country and overseas.

“It’s been helpful to know that we have a family of souls around the country who have been cheering us on, who have been praying for us, supporting us with donations,” the priest said.

Following the fire, a neighboring Presbyterian church opened up their gym as worship space for the shrine. Last year, when the church needed their gym back, the institute converted space in the rectory basement into a chapel where they celebrate three Sunday Masses in the Tridentine rite and hold regular devotions.

“This is the only Catholic church remaining in Woodlawn,” Talarico said.

Designed and built by Henry J. Schlacks in 1923, the church opened as the Carmelite-run St. Clara Parish and, until the late 1950s, housed the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux.

It burned once before in 1976 and later became St. Gelasius Parish, after St. Clara merged first with St. Cyril and then Holy Cross Parish in 1990. St. Gelasius closed in 2002, and the building was slated for demolition when the archdiocese determined that it could not afford the work necessary to make the building safe. But Cardinal Francis George gave it new life when he invited the institute to staff the church in 2004.

Since then, the institute has worked on renovating the church and developing a growing community of worshippers, many of whom come from outside the city for Mass and other devotions.

Outreach to the Woodlawn community is important to the institute, but limited space following the 2015 fire hampered those efforts. The institute holds health fairs, regular food and clothing giveaways and will increase its efforts when the church reopens.

“This church is a very important place in this community,” Talarico said. “The Lord gave us a mission here and that mission had a lot of fruit to it.”

After the fire, when the institute said it was committed to staying in the community, the archdiocese transferred ownership of the church to it.

“In the face of the adversity we said, well, let’s have recourse to faith again to bring us through this and continue to serve the needs of the community and bring Christ to Woodlawn and beyond,” Talarico said.

Steven Tantillo has been a member of the parish since the mid-1980s and said the fire was a difficult moment for the community.

“It was really devastating. We all felt like we had lost a beloved relative and we were worried about our future because it just seemed pretty hopeless. But the priests were so inspiring, saying you had to look to God and he will provide,” Tantillo said. “In fact, God has provided in many ways.”

Seeing the church slowly come back to life encourages him.

“It’s just been a steady process of renovating but it’s really looking very good now,” he said. “It’s really a remarkable transformation of the church already.”

The news in 2004 that the institute would staff the church pleased the longtime parishioner.

“I thought it was just a wonderful development because there had been some talk about tearing the church down and it was the institute that stepped up to agree to take it on,” he said. “That was a very important thing for the neighborhood because the church is one of the few institutions, at least at that time, that was still active.”

“This neighborhood has seen some troubling times but it is on the upswing in a very big way,” Tantillo said, adding that the shrine is a regular stop on Open House Chicago.

The whole effort will be worth it, he said.

“It will be a place where all of Chicago will be interested in seeing,” he said. “It’s just going to be an absolutely splendid place to visit for Catholics and non-Catholics.”


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