By ALLISON MATYUS
On Oct. 7, 2015, a fire engulfed the over 90-year-old Shrine of Christ the King Church in the early morning hours. The fire completely destroyed the roof, causing it to cave in. Burnt debris littered the streets surrounding the church and smoke from the fire lingered around even after the fire was extinguished by the Chicago Fire Department.
Canon Matthew Talarico, the Provincial Supervisor of the Institute of Christ the King, remembers the day that changed everything for him and the church’s community.
“I had a sense that something good would come out of this disaster, but it was hard to know exactly what that would be,” he recalled. “I knew from the beginning if we would really stick together and pray together, that some kind of good would come from it.”
Almost immediately after the devastating fire, the community came together to save the church. Just four days after, $38,000 was raised in a crowd funding campaign for the church. Over 150 community members and parishioners gathered outside of the church to show solidarity in the path towards restoration.
It wasn’t until a couple months later in January that the fate of the Shrine began to come into question when the Archdiocese of Chicago, who owned the building, asked the City of Chicago for a demolition permit for the Shrine, citing that the building was not safe.
At a Jan. 7 Landmarks Commission meeting, neighbors of the Shrine, congregation members, professional preservationists and community members came together to state their case to keep the Shrine open. From there, the Coalition to Save the Shrine was born.
“Our main goal was to first get enough public interest and support that people would be motivated, but also to raise enough money to stabilize the building,” said Emily Nielson, a member of the coalition.
The church and the surrounding community came together in an all-encompassing way to share in the same cause for keeping the Shrine alive in the Woodlawn neighborhood; a community that has no other Catholic parishes other than the Shrine.
“It has been a year in which we have been able to deepen the partnerships in our community and across the city…it’s been very encouraging,” Talarico said.
Nielson said there were 2,250 signatures collected for a petition to stop demolition, adding that a high concentration of signers were Hyde Parkers. The Hyde Park Historical Society worked with the coalition during the uncertain time of a possible demolition.
On Feb. 28, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it had deeded the property to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, therefore discontinuing the demolition process. Approximately $650,000 had been raised for the building’s stabilization.
“It’s a very encouraging sign of innovation from the archdiocese and how it is going to care for buildings like the Shrine in the future, without taking on financial responsibility,” Nielson said.
Now, the task to rebuild the historic church is the focus for the foreseeable future. Talarico said that they are currently in the middle of phase one of the rehabilitation process, with the roof being the next step.
At a celebratory rally to commemorate the one year anniversary of the fire and how far the church has come this past Saturday, Oct. 8, Talarico announced that the next step in phase one of the construction process, the rebuilding of the roof, is set to begin in March.
Aside from the roof, phase two will involve getting the building ready in order to get a permit from the city for occupancy, which involves reinstalling plumbing, heating and cooling, fire protection, electrical system and repairing the floor. The third and final phase will be the interior.
“[The Shrine] was built to be a neoclassical Roman church so we want to bring these various elements to the interior design,” Talarico said. “We want to be faithful to the tradition of this building and its architect while making it adaptive according to our needs to create a truly beautiful and inspiring place.”
The restoration fund for the Shrine currently has $1.5 million and Talarico said that with some generous estate gifts that are pending, that number will reach about $2 million. He said the first phase alone will cost about $3 million.
The websites that are set up for Shrine updates and donations include shrinelandmark.org, savetheshrine.org, and gofundme.com/ShrineFireFund.
The inspiring story of the Shrine’s journey over the past year is one that the community will always remember.
“There were different perspectives whether you were a Christian or whether you lived across the street or were a member of Preservation of Chicago, but everyone agreed that it should be saved,” Nielson said.