Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Parishioners are determined to save last Catholic Church in Woodlawn

A race is on now between hope and renewal versus destitution and disaster for the Shrine of Christ the King, 6415 S. Woodlawn Ave. 

Members are united in an effort to rebuild their shrine after a fire broke out early in the morning of Oct. 7, 2015, and destroyed the choir loft, a large part of the roof, and most of the interior furnishings.

“It was a devastating and overwhelming sight,” said parishioner Marty Brongel, a purchasing manager at Kozy Cyclery. “It was hard to believe. Just on Sunday we had Mass, and less than a week later the site reminded me of churches demolished by bombing during World War II.”

The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a society of priests in charge of the shrine, has committed to a demanding and purposeful restoration campaign.

“This is the last Catholic Church in the Woodlawn neighborhood, and we all work to preserve this landmark building,” said the Rev. Canon Matthew Talarico, rector and provincial superior. “This is a place of great diversity, much good, and good will.”

Just to restore the roof and complete masonry repairs for the façade and tower, the community needs to raise $3 million. It already has raised $1.5 million.

“However, it is just a first phase of this project,” said Fr. Talarico.

“During the second phase, we will need to raise funds for the new floor; to install new plumbing, heating and cooling systems; and to restore electricity.”

The final phase will restore decorations and acquire artwork for the shrine. Prominent Chicago church architect Henry J. Schlacks (1867-1938) designed the 93-year-old shrine. 

Schlacks’s architectural legacy includes St. Adalbert, St. Anthony, St. Mary of the Lake, St. Henry, and St. Ita churches.

Construction of the Shrine of the Christ the King building, formerly known under the names of St. Clara Church and St. Gelasius Church, started in 1923 and finished in 1928. 

The architect sought inspiration from Italian classical models and designed the church in the Renaissance Revival style, giving it cruciform plan; a façade based on the imperial Roman triumphal arches; and Corinthian columns with statues of Sts. Ann, Joseph, Gabriel, and Joachim. 

The shrine’s 120-foot bell tower includes doric, ionic, and corinthian column elements. 

Architectural historians named this church Schlacks’s “life’s masterpiece,” and it received Chicago Landmark status in 2004.

Throughout its history, the church has rebounded after disaster and demolition threats. 

In the mid-1950s, local demographics had changed and parishioner numbers declined. 

In 1976, an arsonist set fire to the church, destroying its elegant interior woodwork crafted from Circassian walnut, the entire sanctuary area, and north transept window. 

The church never was able to restore the original interior beauty, which reflected Carmelite order colors and symbolism.

By the turn of the millennium the church had closed and the building was marked for demolition. Cardinal Francis George saved it, however, giving it to the Institute of Christ the King, which has a history of numerous successful church restorations.

“We started from the very beginning restoring the life of the church,” recalled Fr. Talarico.

Members of the order rose to the challenge to restore the building and revive the faith community: in a few years, the congregation grew and the church currently has about 200 registered families.

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