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Lot of work, lot of hope as church restoration begins

Crews are now cleaning up the ash and debris from the interior of the Shrine of Christ the King Church, 6415 S Woodlawn. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

A scrap of tar paper floats down from what remains of the church roof — a lattice of rusting steel beams that divides the sky into gray rectangles.

Heaps of blackened debris rise from the floor. A sooty prayer card pokes out here, a shred of crimson seat cushion fabric there.

But Rev. Canon Matthew Talarico is in the hope business.

“The walls are very solid,” he says, dressed in an immaculate black cassock and a white hard hat. “You have two layers of brick and then limestone. So the walls are very solid.”

A welcoming smile rarely left Talarico’s face Tuesday morning as he escorted visitors through what remains of the Shrine of Christ the King Church in Woodlawn, almost seven months after a fire ravaged the 91-year-old building.

It will take more than hope and a pleasing demeanor to save the historic church. About $1 million has arrived so far. That includes $300,000 from an anonymous Chicago preservationist, as well as a one-dollar bill and some change sent from a boy in Kansas City, who’d heard about the Oct. 7 accidental fire.

Talarico said it could take $9 million or more to restore the church, which has twice been saved from the wrecking ball since the laying of its foundation stone in 1923.

The church — with its delicate Corinthian capitals, high arched windows and soaring bell tower — had been the property of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The congregation dwindled, and the church eventually closed in 2001. The archdiocese allowed the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest — a religious order based in Italy — to move in three years later.

After the fire, the archdiocese decided the building would be too expensive to repair. They handed over the deed to the religious group, which, among other things, has set up a GoFundMe page. In the meantime, the congregation meets in a vintage gym belonging to the neighboring First Presbyterian Church of Chicago.

The work began this week. The steel jaws of a Bobcat crunched charred pews, hand-carved wood scrolls and other reminders of the way the church once was. In the sagging choir loft, where the fire started, orange sparks leaped into the air, as a worker sawed through twisted metal.

In the sacristy, the room where the clergy prepare for mass, a sooty photograph of Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich sat on a shelf. In a dark corner of the room, three collection baskets leaned against a wall.

A few feet from the sacristy stood a statue of the Scared Heart of Jesus with his left arm reaching out in the direction of the men in hard hats and neon-green vests. Only a metal nub remained of the statue’s right arm.

Before the fire, the figure had been placed atop a side altar. It was recently moved to the main altar.

“We will fix it, but we wanted it to stay here as a sign of asking God’s blessing upon this work that we’re doing,” Talarico said.

The first phase of the restoration — sealing up the building against rain and snow — is expected to take about a year.