October 7 marked the second anniversary of the fire that severely damaged the Shrine of Christ the King, located on 64th Street and South Woodlawn Avenue. This month, the Shrine was approved to receive a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, which will provide funding to help with the restoration.
The National Fund for Sacred Places will donate half of what community members and the Coalition to Save the Shrine, a local organization, are able to raise. The funding from this grant will go toward completing phase one of restoration, including masonry repairs, placement of a new roof, and building stabilization. As of now, the grant has given $250,000 to finish the roof, which is set to be repaired over this winter.
The Coalition to Save the Shrine has so far raised $2.18 million out of the $3 million needed to complete phase one. Phase two, which includes repairing the mechanical systems, and phase three for interior repairs, are still under study and costs have yet to be determined.
Originally named St. Clara, the Shrine was first built in 1923 by Henry J. Schlacks. It thrived for many years until the neighborhood’s Catholic population declined due to demographic changes, according to Emily Nielsen, a founder and board member of the Coalition to Save the Shrine. The Coalition was formed in the early 2000s to protect the Shrine. In 1976, the church had its first fire, an arson attack. “The church is really a survivor,” Nielsen said.
In 2000, the church was set to be demolished. When the demolition crew arrived, Sister Therese, a member of the church, ran out and demanded permits from the demolition crew, Nielsen said. The city had, in fact, issued the permit for the wrong address. “It was a great blessing and enabled a preservation movement to swing in,” Nielsen told The Maroon. The late Cardinal Francis George, the former Archbishop of Chicago, transferred the church to the Institute of Christ the King, a priestly order with past success in restoring churches. In 2004, Chicago granted the church landmark status, meaning that it cannot be demolished unless deemed a public safety hazard.
As restoration efforts proceeded, the Shrine began to attract people from all over the Midwest. However, on the morning of October 7, 2015, during the Shrine’s second phase of restoration, wood-staining rags spontaneously combusted and a fire engulfed the roof. The roof, choir loft, windows, and nearly all the interior furnishings of the church were destroyed. The archdiocese of Chicago declared it a public safety hazard. Once again, the church was set to be demolished, and the fight for preservation persisted.
“We started to make as much noise as we could,” Nielsen said. “It was a whirlwind of two months, but all the activity that we were doing ended up inspiring generous people who made anonymous pledges to Preservation Chicago up to $650,000… In that moment of crisis, how much that inspired so quickly was incredible.”