Unscathed statue of Jesus inspires parish to rebuild after fire
Hours after the last flames had been put out, a firefighter walked down the blackened steps of Shrine of Christ the King Church on a recent Wednesday and handed over a statue covered in gold vestments and topped with a crown.
The statue, known as the Divine Infant Jesus, was made in Spain in the 1700s. It was presented to the 92-year-old church in the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood 10 years ago, after the church was spared the wrecking ball and the parish began the long work of restoration.
Smudged, but otherwise undamaged, the statue survived an extra-alarm fire overnight that was touched off by renovation work and severely damaged the roof and interior, according to fire officials. To the priests of the parish, it symbolized their intent to rebuild again.
“The statue is the spiritual centerpiece of our shrine and its community, so people really spiritually identify with it,” said the Rev. Matthew Talarico.
“It’s iconic to symbolize all the work and the mission that we do at the church,” he said. “It’s important that people see that this has been preserved from past years, and this is the first step on the journey forward and that Christ is still with us.”
The first fire crews were alerted about 5:45 a.m. that morning, and the blaze was quickly raised to a 3-11 alarm, sending 150 firefighters to the church, along with extra equipment to fight flames that were already shooting through the roof, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.
Part of the roof had collapsed by the time the fire was struck out shortly before 9 a.m., Langford said. No one was injured, but dozens of women and children were evacuated from a shelter next door.
Officials said “spontaneous combustion” in rags used to apply floor stain started the fire. Langford said workers had been varnishing the floor the night before.
Deputy Commissioner John McNicholas of the Fire Department said the fire may have gone unnoticed for some time before the department was alerted. Crews had to fight the fire from outside because it had spread across the roof and there were fears the roof might cave in.
Firefighters directed jets of water from the top of tower ladders. Water cascaded down the sides of the stone building, washing over the columns and the statues of four saints above the entrance.
A group of eight to 10 people dressed in black cassocks stood praying in a small grassy area across from the entrance. Huddled nearby were dozens of women and children evacuated from St. Martin de Porres House of Hope.
“They were afraid the windows would explode,” said Sister Therese O’Sullivan, who co-founded the shelter. “I’m devastated. This is devastating.”
A firefighter gathered the women and children and escorted them to a warming bus on the other side of the church.
Some of the women picked up their children as they stepped over streaming water. One firefighter picked up a child and carried him across the street from the parking lot.
Inside the church, charred rubble covered the floor, and water soaked the walls and pillars inside. Most of the roof was gone.
But Talarico remained positive, emphasizing that the parish will still have Masses and carry on other services.
“The message is that you need to have Good Friday before you can have Easter Sunday,” Talarico said with a laugh.
“We’re not starting all over again. This is just another chapter. Our community is here, and we will continue to move forward step by step together. Sometimes circumstances like this bring people even closer together because that common goal really unites us in Christ and with each other.
“We won’t miss a beat,” he said, noting that the church has escaped destruction before.
The church, formerly known as St. Gelasius, was built by the Calced Carmelite Order in 1923 and once housed a national shrine to St. Therese of Lisieux, according to the church’s website. It was designed by Henry Schlacks, who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of architectural design.
A fire in the late 1970s destroyed much of the interior of the neo-Renaissance church and repairs were slow. By 2002, parishioners numbered around 100, and the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese decided to close it.
A year later, a demolition crew arrived to begin disconnecting gas and power, but crew members ran into Sister Connie Driscoll, who ran the shelter next door and rushed out to stand in their way. The delay gave supporters time to challenge the demolition permit and eventually save the church.
Mayor Richard M. Daley sided with the preservationists, and the archdiocese announced in early 2004 that it was turning the church over to the Institute of Christ the King, an order of priests based in Italy that planned to renovate the church and celebrate the Mass in Latin.
The church was reopened as the Shrine of Christ the King as the order launched an initial fundraising drive to collect nearly $6 million for the work. Cost estimates rose to $9 million as the work was parceled out over more than 10 years.
In December 2007, the church was temporarily fitted with donated pews and temporary altars, along with rented heating, according to its website, which added: “The restoration of this magnificent church for permanent use is entirely dependent on the generous donation of the needed funds.”
Tuckpointing had been completed and a new roof built, Talarico said. Still on the drawing board: new floors, heating and cooling, and plumbing. “These are million-dollar steps,” he said.