Fire tears through Shrine of Christ the King in Woodlawn

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Work to rehab a Woodlawn church that was ravaged by fire 40 years ago ignited another huge fire at the Shrine of Christ the King on Chicago's South Side. No one was injured in the church fire.

More than 150 firefighters were called the 90-year-old church, located in the 6400 block of South Woodlawn Avenue, early Wednesday morning. Chicago Fire Department detectives said spontaneous combustion from rags used to stain the floor of the choir pew is the mostly likely culprit. Volunteers were working on the restoration project late into Tuesday night. The fire wasn't spotted until 5:45 a.m.

"That fire traveled from front to back, from the second floor all the way up the roof section and then ran the whole length of the church," Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas said.

Fire crews are still at the church, putting out hot spots. They salvaged the items they could get to inside- including an 18th Century statue of the baby Jesus from Spain.

"It's very moving for me to be able to see that despite the damage that's gone on at the church here this morning, that this statue comes out and he's standing where everything else has fallen, rescued the Christ child," Canon Matthew Talarico, Institute of Christ the King, said.

Firefighters joined the priest in praying over the ash-covered tabernacle.

For hours, fire crews poured water on the roof as flames climbed high.

"Truss roofs are the most dangerous roofs firefighters can face. Once a truss roof is compromised, you have the possibility of the collapse of the roof all at one time. If it doesn't happen at one time, it can happen in sections. In this case, it happened in sections. Three quarters of the entire length of the roof is into the structure," McNicholas said.

The fire was extinguished around 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

The rectory and an old school building used as a shelter for women and children were not damaged. However, they were evacuated.

"We didn't panic because we knew we had to get out. The staff that was working, we have staff around the clock, got everybody out calmly," Sister Therese O'Sullivan, St. Martin DePorres House of Hope, said.

The Shrine of Christ the King was originally a Catholic church, known first as St. Clara and then as St. Gelasius. As the size of the parish diminished, the building faced demolition. However, the building was given historic status and taken over by a religious order in 2006.

In the 1970s, a fire swept through the interior of the building.

"We just had carpets on the floor. All the holes in the walls from the previous fire we had covered with fabric. If you first walk in, you wouldn't even know. You would only notice the beautiful things, the statues," Raciunas said.

Alderman Willie B. Cochran said a major renovation project costing millions of dollars was under way at the shrine.

"We knew it was getting to take 10, 20 years to get it accomplished. Now we have to go back to the drawing board. And it's an unfortunate loss," Cochran said.

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