She’d seen her church recover from fire before. But Wednesday morning, surveying the gray water and tar paper that snaked out of the massive limestone church after another devastating fire, Nicole Raciunas wept.
“It’s our home,” the 47-year-old mother of eight said as firefighters doused what was left of a huge fire early Wednesday that ravaged the historic Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest Catholic church in Woodlawn.
Formerly St. Gelasius Church and also St. Clara’s, the church had been the scene of a devastating fire in 1976 that nearly led to its demolition. It was saved by a Catholic order, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which has run the church since 2004.
The fire began when improperly stored rags used in the application of a floor stain spontaneously combusted, according to the Chicago Fire Department.
“They were repairing the choir loft area, the floor, using a stain, a product which has a lot of precautions on the bottle, on how you’re supposed to store the rags you use. It’s notorious for setting itself on fire,” fire department spokesman Larry Langford said.
“Sometime during the night, the rags ignited, then set plastic on fire, which then spread through the structure,” Langford said. “It might have been smoldering for hours. By the time the fire tripped the smoke alarm at about 5:45, the fire had already been going for awhile.”
Damage to the 91-year-old church was “extensive,” but the hulking limestone structure itself was left intact and salvageable, Langford said.
Renovation had been slow, as the order sought to raise the several million dollars needed to rebuild the interior, over the years completing one project at a time, as funding and volunteers allowed.
Cardinal Francis George had turned the church over to the order in 2004, with his blessing, attending the first Mass — on Christmas Eve 2007 — after the order completed the minimum work needed to use the church.
“We woke up very early this morning to smoke,” Canon Matthew Talarico, provincial superior for the order in the United States, said as firefighters fought to put out hot spots that continued to ignite well into the afternoon. “We started to evacuate the building, and then we saw some of the flames were starting to come out of the church
“We’ve been working on that since 2004. We’ve been building a community here around this church ever since. At the moment, we were trying to raise a couple million dollars to be able to put in the mechanical systems that we need, the heating and cooling and the plumbing for the restrooms, and also to repair the floor and a lot of other basic kinds of things.
“The building was really an empty shell, with temporary furnishings. But a lot of people come. This is their home.”
About 150 firefighters battled the fire, and no one was injured, according to fire officials. It was under control by about 8:15 a.m.
The first call was that it was just a small fire, but it soon became clear it was much bigger than that, Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas said.
Crews “recognized the fact that they had an awful lot of fire within the church,” he said.
At the height of the fire, four Chicago Fire Department tower ladders were blasting water into the historic structure at 6415 S. Woodlawn Ave., and there were about 50 pieces of fire equipment on the scene. The timbers of the partially collapsed roof were splintered, with gray-brown smoke continuing to billow through the openings.
Raciunas had gotten a text about the fire from a fellow parishioner Wednesday morning. But she had to see the devastation for herself.
She said workers had been refinishing the floors in the choir loft this week.
“You could smell it last night while we were in church — the varnish,” said Raciunas, who had been to Mass with her children on Tuesday night.
She said her family began coming to the church in 2006. At that time, the building was all but “gutted” as the result of the 1976 fire, which destroyed the interior and left it set for demolition. When the order took over, parishioners who had been attending a mass in a building next door watched as, little by little, the building was brought back to life, Raciunas said.
“The roof was fixed, and we had just gotten insulation,” Raciunas said. “We didn’t have a ceiling, but we had insulation in the rafters. So it was a little more climate-controlled.”
McKane Copeland, 18, stood near Raciunas on Wednesday, with a blanket draped over his shoulders. Copeland, a seminary candidate at the church, clutched a thick Rolodex someone had retrieved from the priory office.
“This is like Solomon’s treasure,” Copeland said.
He said he was asleep when he heard a smoke alarm sound.
“I immediately smelled smoke,” he said. “I knew it was serious when I heard all the fire trucks and the sirens outside.”
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.
Heather Malkast, 47, who lives in a condo building across from the church, was teary-eyed as she watched firefighters work. After buying her home there in 2002, she was part of a group who fought for landmark status for the church to prevent its demolition. She attended that first Mass on Christmas Eve 2007 and will miss hearing the church’s bells tolling at noon, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. daily.
“I remember that first Mass. There was no heat, and we’re all sitting in there freezing, but we were happy it didn’t get torn down,” Malkast said. “I still remember a group of us holding a press conference in front of the church, saying, ‘No more empty lots. No more abandoned structures. No more.’ The community deserved more than that, and we got it. I marvel at everything the priests have accomplished. I’m hoping people will step up to help, once they know the history. I’m hoping for them it will be even better than before.”
As for the order, they were just grateful the fire didn’t reach their rectory home or the school in the back that’s used as a women and children’s shelter, Talarico said.
And they were grateful for one other thing.
“The centerpiece of our shrine is a beautiful statue of the Christ child that comes from the year 1700, from Spain. And I was amazed that I was able just to look in the church a few hours ago and see the statue still standing there, and everything else, from the roof, had fallen around it. And so I asked them to save it, and the firemen were able to bring out the statue, and bring out also the Holy Tabernacle,” Talarico said.
“So that was sort of iconic for us that really the most important treasure we have here in this church has been saved and rescued. I think it’s a testimony that we will, with the help of God, and the blessing of the Archdiocese, be able to rebuild a new house for this . . . Infant King, and for our children for future generations.”