CHICAGO — The vacant lots that blight Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood testify to the neighborhood’s share of hard times. But the Shrine of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest stands as a beacon of hope for this Chicago community, since it will not join the neighborhood’s list of demolished landmarks but will be rebuilt after its devastating fire.
In late February, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it had transferred the deed of the damaged property over to the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, an order dedicated to the celebration of the sacraments according to the classical Catholic Tradition. Living a fraternal community life, the priests are known as canons, who offer the traditional Latin Mass exclusively according to the 1962 Roman Missal.
The archdiocese’s decision spares the shrine from the wrecking ball. An engineering report revealed that the damage from the October 2015 fire, started by an oil rag that spontaneously combusted, was severe and recommended the structure be demolished as a safety hazard, unless steps were taken immediately to salvage it.
“The Archdiocese of Chicago is supportive of the institute’s efforts to maintain its presence in the Woodlawn community and continue its ministry there,” it stated in a release, explaining that the archdiocese had confidence transferring the property over to the institute once it was confirmed the institute had the funds to stabilize the badly damaged shrine and begin once again the task of restoring its beauty.
Ever since the canons took over the former church of St. Gelasius in 2004, and turned it into a shrine enthroning the statue of Jesus the Infant King over the tabernacle, they have been a constant and much-loved presence in the community.
Praying their Rosaries, wearing their cassocks and always making themselves available to their neighbors, the canons have become part of the fabric of Woodlawn. When the fire destroyed much of the more-than-90-year-old building, the Infant King also manifested the character of Woodlawn’s residents: Burned, but intact, he survived and was going to rebuild his home.
Astrida and Steven Tantillo, longtime members of the shrine’s community, whose home has a view of the shrine’s tower, told the Register they were overjoyed at the news.
“It’s a testament to the archdiocese’s recognition of the vitality of the shrine, the religious community of the shrine, but also the support the canons have engendered in the community,” said Steven, who was one of the first to attend the institute’s Masses when the canons arrived in Chicago at the invitation of Cardinal Francis George. “It’s such a show of confidence that they have it in hand and are able to do it on their own.”
Astrida said she had been a Lutheran, but it was the beauty of the Mass the institute’s priests celebrated, and their own beautiful example as priests, including their commitment to the Woodlawn community, that moved her to become Catholic like her husband.
“Now, we need to raise the money to really restore it to all of its glory,” she said.
Stabilizing the Shrine
Canon Matthew Talarico, the institute’s provincial superior, told the Register that studies will be conducted on how much the fire has added to the cost of the shrine’s restoration. At the time of the fire, the institute was in the second phase of a $7.3-million restoration project. A rough estimate, he said, now puts the restoration cost north of $9 million.
The archdiocese, as the landlords of the property, had no funds to restore the building. In fact, when the archdiocese was seeking permits for the shrine’s demolition, it had also announced that 100 Chicago parishes would have to be closed by 2030.
Canon Talarico explained that the institute has enjoyed a good relationship with the archdiocese and with Archbishop Blase Cupich, who expressed his condolences personally from the 2015 synod in Rome when he heard about the fire.
Now, with the deed in hand, Canon Talarico said the institute is working with an architect to design a new roof system, replace and reinforce steel trusses and repair damaged masonry. The interior’s plasterwork has to be replaced, along with the cornices on the columns. However, he said the walls are still solid. In retrospect, it was a mercy for the shrine that the fire came early — and not later — in the restoration efforts, as the heating and cooling systems, restrooms and other basic systems had not yet been installed.
“In this month of March, we’re all really praying to St. Joseph, asking St. Joseph, the master builder, to provide the funding we need, to really bring this project forward and complete this home for Christ, our Infant King,” he said.
Woodlawn’s Spiritual Bethlehem
While the canons and their congregation pray to St. Joseph to rebuild their home, the Woodlawn neighborhood in many ways has become a sort of spiritual Bethlehem for the Infant King who has also suffered with the neighborhood and taken on its hardy character.
When the institute’s canons arrived in the early 2000s, they had a handful of Catholics in the congregation. But, today, the congregation numbers 300 persons, with 200 people on any given Sunday, according to Canon Talarico.
The shrine’s community is multi-ethnic, drawn from the predominantly African-American Woodlawn neighborhood itself, from all over the archdiocese and from the nearby University of Chicago.
“People really come from far and wide, because of the shrine,” said the canon.
Gabriel Piemonte, a Woodlawn resident and neighbor, who lives five blocks away from the shrine, explained the canons have been good neighbors and really opened up their hearts to the community. The shrine has served as a community center for Woodlawn, where the Woodlawn Residents Association has liked to meet. The canons have also hosted free classical music concerts for the neighborhood at the shrine.
What is more, Piemonte added, the shrine has been starting to bring families back to the “challenged neighborhood” that has lost half its population of 40,000 — and already seen its fair share of demolished properties.
“After 2008, there were a lot of vacant lots and boarded-up residential units,” he said.
But the thriving congregation is as important to the neighborhood as the church building itself. Piemonte explained that the congregation’s visits to the coffee shop every weekend allow the shop’s rent to be covered. And that gives hope that the other vacant storefronts in the neighborhood will fill up too.
“Life brings life,” he said. “These people are adding a tremendous presence because it is alive and activated.”
Blessings of Fire
The community’s loyalty to the shrine is no accident, the Tantillos explained.
“They have really gone out of their way to make sure that everyone is welcome there, whether you’re Catholic or not,” said Astrida Tantillo.
Steven Tantillo explained that the canons build relationships with the community and really exemplify what Pope Francis says about priests having the “smell of the sheep.”
“They live it every day, and that outswelling of support that came after the fire was built on years of living that life,” he said.
They said that, after the fire, when the canons were hosted by St. Thomas Priory, people signed up to bring them food.
The University of Chicago also offered the institute the use of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on campus.
The university’s student newspaper even went so far as to opine that having the shrine in Woodlawn was more important for that community than the construction of the upcoming Obama Presidential Library.
The coffee shop owners took to the media to say how important the shrine was to their business. The Tantillos said that Sister Teresa and the women at the nearby drug-rehabilitation center came to rally for the church’s preservation.
The First Presbyterian Church, across from the shrine, provided the institute and its Catholic community with the school gymnasium free of charge, which Astrida said was “an amazing testimony of Christian generosity.”
“Everyone just came together,” she said. “For me, it was so moving — I had no idea how much the church meant to the community — we went to community meetings and saw people crying who were not members of the parish, but because it meant so much to them to have this institution in the neighborhood.”
Save the Shrine Coalition
As a member of the local historic preservation community, Piemonte helped get the shrine added, two years ago, to a Chicago tour of historic buildings. So when the city’s landmarks committee scheduled a hearing to grant demolition permits, he reached out to his friend, vice rector Canon Michael Stein, who said the institute had learned the same thing.
The Woodlawn community began a rapid mobilization. An ad hoc group called “Save the Shrine Coalition” was formed, headed by Piemonte; Mike Medina, president of the Woodlawn Residents Association; and Emily Nielsen, a member of the shrine’s congregation. The coalition rallied local and national landmark preservationists, and the community turned out in force at Chicago City Hall to testify to the landmarks committee why the shrine was vital to Woodlawn’s present and future.
In the meantime, the canons were negotiating with the archdiocese about the future of the shrine.
“We made the public case, while they were doing the negotiations,” Piemonte said.
Canon Talarico said that, in many ways, the fire at the shrine “really has brought out so many beautiful things.” Nothing typifies Chicago more than a community that comes together to rebuild after a fire, given how Chicago rebuilt as a whole after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.
He added, “This is the spirit of Chicago.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.