Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Fighting the Fight to #SaveTheShrine at the Shrine of Christ King Sovereign Priest, Chicago, Illinois

The plight of this religious community on Chicago’s South Side has taken a wide swing of turns since the blaze that nearly destroyed its church building on October 7, 2015. In the last week or so, news has emerged that the Institute of Christ King Sovereign Priest is now revisiting the possibility of saving the church building with the Archdiocese of Chicago [1]. Hearing this, I felt obliged to share my experience from visiting the Institute shortly after the fire last year.

You can help support the Shrine's commitment to bringing their community back to their historic church in Chicago by contributing through their GoFundMe campaign.

“Succisa virescit.”
"What was cut down, grows back stronger and flourishes.”
- St. Benedict

The Institute of Christ King Sovereign Priest has made a habit of helping bring old churches and neighborhoods from the brink. Oftentimes this involves moving into otherwise-closed churches and breathing life into these neighborhoods. St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis and St. Stanislaus Oratory in Milwaukee are examples of this. The Institute in Chicago is a staple in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side. Less than two miles from the Chicago home address of President Barrack Obama, the Woodlawn neighborhood has long been in various states of economic and social transition. The church building itself has changed designations as St. Clara, the National Shrine to St. Thérèse Liseux, and St. Gelasius before the Archdiocese first considered demolishing it in the early 2000s. Despite the weak Catholic presence surrounding a beautiful worship space, the Institute appealed to take over use of the church in 2003. Restoration began shortly after and continued at a blistering pace as the Institute blossomed in the neighborhood for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

At the same time a restoration of Woodlawn began to move with more steam, in both religious and secular terms. The canons, as the priests are officially referred to at the Institute, have made available the Shrine and themselves for the betterment of the community. Before the fire, the church served as the monthly meeting location for the Woodlawn Residents Association. On a regular basis, the church also hosted a series of free concerts and other cultural events open to the general public. In recent winters, the canons have appeared on local ice skating rinks where they mix casual evangelistic outreach with hockey. Canon Michael Stein, known by some from the skating rinks as “Father of the Hood,” has played a major role with his fellow canons in the conversion of some local residents to the Catholic faith as well. In the meantime, with the influence of the nearby University of Chicago and the growing influx of Catholics visiting the Shrine from other parts of Chicagoland, the economic and social climates in Woodland have gradually improved.

“…our Good Friday began with fire.”

In the hours before sunrise on October 7, varnish rags used in the Shrine church’s restoration combusted into flames. The damage sustained in the ensuing blaze destroyed much of the interior, windows, and the roof. However, key to limiting damage at the Shrine was the help of roughly 150 firefighters from Chicago’s Fire Department. Their gallant efforts contained the fire and led to saving some of the Shrine’s most priceless possessions, including the tabernacle containing the Body of Christ and an 18th Century statue of the Christ Child. Through the conflagration, much of the Shrine’s efforts to restore its home were brought back to the drawing board. 

The pulpit, still standing, can be seen near the lower right-hand corner amid the rubble.

As damaging as the fire has been physically and emotionally for the parish and community, this is also a time where the Woodlawn community has emerged in solidarity with the parishioners at the Shrine. Within hours of the fire, folks from all over Woodlawn and Chicagoland came to the Shrine in solidarity for the Institute in the form of a prayer rally. Local hockey players, business owners, and ordinary neighborhood residents, all touched by the work of the Institute, took part in support of their Catholic neighbors.

Barely a month after the fire, the Shrine moved into an interim home thanks to the generosity of the neighboring First Presbyterian Church. My photos come from visiting the Institute at the formal opening Mass at “The Upper Room,” as the current worship space is known among the local faithful. Check back soon for more photos from the opening Mass highlighting the help the Shrine received from all across the Midwest!

Shrine of Christ King Sovereign Priest

Additional Source:

*Quotes within the article come from Canon Matthew Talarico’s homily at the Inaugural Ceremony and High Mass in The Upper Room on November 15, 2015.

**Special thanks goes to the canons, staff, and volunteers at the Shrine, who invited me to visit and offered much of the information and access at the Shrine that allowed this post to come to life.

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