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Archdiocese wants to demolish Woodlawn church damaged by fire

The Chicago Landmark Commission will meet Thursday to consider a request by the Chicago Archdiocese to demolish the fire damaged bones of a historic South Side church, and supporters of rebuilding the church plan to attend the meeting to weigh in.

Despite an online fundraising effort that has raised nearly $64,000 to save the 91-year-old church, Rev. Canon Matthew Talarico posted a note on the church’s GoFundMe page informing parishioners of the archdiocese’s position regarding the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, 6401 S. Woodlawn Ave.

“Based on extensive engineering and other evaluations the Archdiocese has concluded that the church building has significant structural issues and to restore the building to its state before the fire and to bring it up to current City of Chicago building code standards is cost prohibitive,” Talarico said.

He further explained: “The Archdiocese is predominantly self-insured and therefore there is no resort to an insurance claim with an external insurer.”

The archdiocese issued a statement Tuesday afternoon that read, in part: “The Archdiocese would like to save the building but it is unsafe and cost prohibitive to do so.”

The structure also has been known as St. Clara and as St. Gelasius Church, which is how it is listed on the commission agenda for Thursday’s meeting.

The archdiocese offered Christ the King the opportunity to propose a plan for rebuilding a new church on the same site, which the religious order — headquartered in Italy — is considering as a first option, Talarico said in the statement. The archdiocese has also offered a South Side church which is now available for occupancy.

The Archdiocese will renew its lease with the Christ the King for use of the rectory and parking lot.

Phone messages left for Talarico were not returned Tuesday.

A link on the front page of the religious group’s main website routes users to the GoFundMe page and Talarico’s statement.

Meanwhile, a group that wants to see the fire-gutted church spared from the wrecking ball and rebuilt is encouraging likeminded people to attend the Landmark Commission meeting Thursday at City Hall to oppose demolition.

The group, calling itself Save the Shrine, said in a statement posted online that news of the move to tear down the church was disturbing and noted that local church members “are very likely unable to speak out against this decision, but we are not.”

The statement, posted on the group’s website, continued: “Woodlawn does not need another demolition. What remains of the church is quite salvageable, and we can expect the congregation and the preservation community to both support saving the church. We cannot assume that something will be built in its place, regardless of whatever assurances are made. And nothing will be built with the quality of material that is there now. Even in its damaged state, St. Gelasius is a connection to Woodlawn’s past, and the vibrant congregation and wonderful clergy of the church are a great contribution to our present. … Losing their energy in the neighborhood would be a real harm to our efforts to build Woodlawn up.”

They urged people to attend the meeting Thursday, scheduled for 12:45 p.m. at City Hall.

The Oct. 7 fire began about 6 a.m. and was sparked when improperly stored rags used to apply floor stain spontaneously combusted, according to the Chicago Fire Department.

The extra-alarm blaze burned the structure’s roof almost completely.

After the fire, Monsignor Michael Schmitz, the vicar general for the Institute of Christ the King, came to Chicago from Rome to offer help in the rebuilding process.

“I hope we can work something out so that this church has the future that it deserves,” Schmitz told reporters.

The church had been the scene of a devastating fire in 1976 that nearly led to its demolition. It was saved by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which has run the church since 2004.

On the day of last year’s fire, CFD spokesman Larry Langford had called damage to the church “extensive,” but said the hulking limestone structure itself was intact and salvageable.

According to the Chicago Architectural Foundation, which had listed the church among sites that would be open for public tours during the organization’s annual Open House Oct. 17-18, the building “was the final work of ecclesiastical architect Henry J. Schlacks.”

“A complete restoration of the interior is planned, but for now the exposed ceiling trusses and lingering charred spots bear witness to the church’s near-demise,” the foundation writes. The church had served as the National Shrine to St. Therese of Lisieux until the late 1950s.

Oily rags were the suspected cause of the fire that damaged Shrine of Christ the King church on Oct. 7. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
Oily rags were the suspected cause of the fire that damaged Shrine of Christ the King church on Oct. 7. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
The Shrine of Christ the King Church was severely damaged by the Oct. 7 fire, but members vowed to rebuild. | Sun-Times file photo
The Shrine of Christ the King Church was severely damaged by the Oct. 7 fire, but members vowed to rebuild. | Sun-Times file photo
The inside of Shrine of Christ the King Church after the October fire. | Sam Charles/For the Sun-Times
The inside of Shrine of Christ the King Church after the October fire. | Sam Charles/For the Sun-Times

Landmarks Commission Agenda Jan. 7