By SAM RAPPAPORT
Chicago Fire officials cited the spontaneous combustion of oily floor rags as the cause of a Wednesday morning fire that structurally devastated a historic Catholic church in Woodlawn.
Late into Wednesday afternoon, firefighters continued to attend to hot spots in the interior of Shrine of Christ the King church, 6401, S. Woodlawn Ave., which, fire department spokesman Larry Langford reported, first caught on fire at approximately 5:45 a.m.
Langford said that 150 firefighters and paramedics were brought out to battle the fire, which was brought under control within an hour and 20 minutes after first responders arrived.
At approximately 8:50 a.m., extensive fire damage caused the church’s roof to cave in.
No injuries are being reported as a result of the fire. Between 40 and 50 women and children were evacuated from a nearby shelter.
At 1:30 p.m., small amounts of smoke still drifted out of the church’s front doors as a flood of water from the building’s interior streamed into the street. Burnt debris littered Woodlawn Avenue and 64th Street.
Canon Matthew Talarico, the Provincial Supervisor of the Institute of Christ the King, lives in the rectory adjacent to the church at 6415 S. Woodlawn Ave. He said he was woken up by firefighters shortly after the blaze began.
Talarico described Shrine of Christ the King as being the centerpiece of the surrounding neighborhood.
“This place is so important to many people’s lives,” Talarico said, looking up at the charred interior of the church.
Talarico said that immediately after he saw the flames he began thinking of the many Woodlawn residents whose lives will be significantly impacted by the destruction of the church.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) as well as the Archbishop of Chicago, who’s currently in Rome, both offered Talarico support in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“All of the support reminds us that this restoration will be about a family, a community,” Talarico said. “We won’t miss a beat, and we’ll continue to have mass nearby.”
Talarico said he plans on leading a mass later tonight in the rectory.
Shrine of Christ the King has bounced back once before from a fire that destroyed the interior of the church in 1976. Talarico expects that the 80-year-old church will make a similarly speedy recovery with the help of community stakeholders.
Pointing to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Talarico said that the city has a history of resiliency, which will be carried on in the restoration of Shrine of Christ the King.
He said, “We will keep that Chicago spirit alive.”