Extra-Alarm Blaze Devastates Historic Woodlawn Church

Updated 10/07/15 – 2:50 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — An extra-alarm fire ravaged a nearly century-old landmark church in Woodlawn on Wednesday, causing the roof to collapse, and sending gray water streaming out the front door hours after firefighters began dousing the heavy flames.

The Fire Department first responded to the fire at Shrine of Christ The King Sovereign Priest, 6401 S. Woodlawn Av., shortly before 6 a.m., when smoke alarms went off in the neighboring priory. Fire officials said the fire might have smoldered all night, after floor varnishing work in the choir loft.

“Realistically, whenever that fire started, it went unnoticed for a long period of time. That smoke could have traveled within the structure, where it didn’t come out until a window failed,” said Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas. “Unfortunately, most of the roof collapsed into the structure. So as beautiful as the structure is, it sustained an awful lot of damage.”

The ornate limestone building, previously named St. Gelasius Church, received city landmark status in 2004.

When the first firefighters arrived at the scene, they saw fire through a couple windows of the church, and once they got inside, they found “an awful lot of fire within the church itself,” according to McNicholas.

Firefighters were pulled out of the building, and a defensive operation was set up to prevent the blaze from spreading to any neighboring buildings.

A total of about 150 firefighters and 50 pieces of fire equipment responded to the blaze.

Statues of saints along the roof looked down the rough the flames as handful of seminarians, brothers, and priests knelt outside the church in their pajamas, and prayed as the fire burned.

“We’ve got people out in front that are praying for the Fire Department to be able to successfully save their church,” Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.

The fire caused extensive damage to the roof, which eventually collapsed.

Parishioner Nicole Raciunas, a mother of eight, cried after seeing the devastation at the church. She was on her way to morning mass when she learned about the blaze.

“It’s worse than I imagined. I was hoping it would just have been something small,” she said. “It’s just a building, but it’s our home; but ultimately, yeah, the church is the people, not the building, so something better will come out of it, I’m sure. God wouldn’t have allowed it, right?”

Langford said investigators believe the fire was the result of spontaneous combustion of varnish-soaked rags that were improperly stored by volunteers who had been refinishing the choir loft floor.

The church’s roof collapsed in the blaze, but the limestone shell of the building and its steeple were secure after the fire, although there was extensive damage inside.

The church rectory and a former school used as a women and children’s shelter were not damaged.

Firefighters got the blaze under control, and struck out the 3-11 alarm around 9 a.m., but were expected to be on the scene for several hours afterward to continue dousing hotspots, and making sure it doesn’t flare up again.

“We’re going to be on the scene here for quite a few hours,” McNicholas said. “When the roof systems failed, those roof systems fell into the main body of the church, so we have a lot of hidden fire that we just don’t see yet. So we will be on scene for quite a while.”

Hours after firefighters arrived, and poured constant streams of water into the building, a waterfall burst through the front doors, and down the front steps, carrying debris into the streets.

Firefighters were able to salvage several artifacts from the church, including a baby Jesus statue from the 18th century.

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No injuries were reported, but a shelter for women and children next door was evacuated as a precaution. Approximately 60 people who were staying at the shelter have been relocated.

According to city records, the church was issued a permit to remove and replace the roof in 2014. A year earlier, the city reinstated a 2010 permit for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, bathroom construction, and accessibility upgrades.

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago spokeswoman Susan Burritt said the church is not part of the Archdiocese, but is run by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest.

Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, with massive Corinthian columns, the St. Gelasius Church building was built in 1923, designed by architect Henry J. Schlacks, who designed several other churches in Chicago and the suburbs, and taught the first formal courses in architecture at the University of Notre Dame in the 1890s.

Ald. Willie Cochran said the goal of 12-year renovation plan was to make the church, a world class attraction.

“Monsignor [Michael] Schmitz has been charged by the Vatican to come here and restore this church,” Cochran said “Supporters in the church and the funders have put several million dollars into this building so far, and there were more to come.”

Cochran said he planned to speak to the community to find a way to move forward with a new renovation plan.

Firefighters pour water through the roof of Shrine of Christ the King, a landmark church in the Woodlawn neighborhood. The St. Gelasius Church building received city landmark status in 2004. (Credit: CBS)

Firefighters pour water through the roof of Shrine of Christ the King, a landmark church in the Woodlawn neighborhood. The St. Gelasius Church building received city landmark status in 2004. (Credit: CBS)

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