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Burned Catholic church rises again — in a neighbor's gym

Chicago firefighter Andre Raiford carried the Christ the Infant King statue into the temporary chapel of the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. | Chicago Fire Department photo

The Rev. Matthew Talarico walked across the alley Nov. 7 from his Catholic church in the Woodlawn neighborhood that was gutted by fire last month to the Presbyterian church and asked a favor: could you spare a little room?

In short order, an agreement was made, hands were shook and a third-floor gymnasium that most recently had been used for tennis lessons began to be transformed into a place of worship that would double, for the time being, as the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest.

More than 60 volunteers, Catholic and Presbyterian alike, hauled the furnishings of a church up three flights of stairs, including wooden pews trucked in from Cleveland.

Catholic parishioners gathered Sunday, just eight days later, for their first Mass in the nook they carved out in the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. A group of firefighters completed the makeshift chapel by carrying in the last and most important piece: a statue of Christ the infant king.

The statue’s mere survival was a sign of hope. During the fire Oct. 7, the roof of the church collapsed around it.

A fire Oct. 7 destroyed part of the Shrine to Christ the King in the Woodlawn neighborhood. | Sam Charles/For the Sun-Times

Hours later, flames squelched, Fire Chief Dan Cunningham walked through the smoldering ash to retrieve the wooden statue from the church’s altar. It was singed and one hand was snapped off.

“I handed it over to our strongest guy with direct orders: Don’t drop it,” Cunningham recalled.

The strongest guy was firefighter Andre Raiford, who on Sunday again picked up the statue to lead a procession of firefighters into Mass to present it to Talarico.

The statue, carved in Spain about 300 years ago, was placed above the temporary altar.

“The fire was not the end of the story,” Talarico said. “The true story is one of resurrection.”

The Presbytarian church, 6400 S. Kimbark Ave., charged no rent and welcomed their Catholic neighbors with open arms by holding a reception after Mass.

“We’re pleased to do that,” said longtime Presbyterian congregant Dianne Luhmann. “It’s the right and Christian thing to do.”

“We’re also pleased the fire didn’t jump the alley,” Luhmann added.

The fate of the 91-year-old fire-damaged damaged Catholic church is in the hands of the Chicago Archdiocese.