National Shrine to Christ the King Renewed: Old Landmark Receives New Life in Chicago

The Shrine of Christ the King is rising again from the ashes, but must complete Phase II before the wrecking ball is completely at bay.

By Peter Jesserer Smith, Jan. 24, 2019

CHICAGO — On a cold October day in the Windy City, as the first snow fell on the last shingle nailed to the new roof of the Shrine of Christ the King, the canons of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest held a Mass of thanksgiving.

The canons and the “Save the Shrine” coalition had completed Phase I of their mission to save the shrine since it had been gutted in October 2015 by a devastating fire and nearly condemned to the wrecking ball. And in a private ceremony, they enthroned the statue of the Infant King who had miraculously survived the flames.

Canon Matthew Weaver, project manager for the shrine restoration, told the Register the restorers are now moving on to the second key phase of making the shrine a permanent home for Christ and a place of national pilgrimage in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood: They must now build the interior, putting flesh on the church’s bones, so they can move to Phase III and beautify the building for lasting generations of public worship.

“We are praying now our Blessed Mother will turn it into a home for the Divine Infant Child and our King,” he said.

On Jan. 6, the religious order, which celebrates the Latin Mass exclusively according to the 1962 Roman Missal of St. John XXIII and has a mission to “enthrone Jesus Christ as King in every aspect of human life,” unveiled the concepts behind the interior design for the national shrine. The national shrine reflects the view that churches are frontiers between heaven and earth, where the canons say, “the angels worship God side by side with men, women and children.”

“We desire to honor the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ from the moment of his virginal conception until his triumphal ascension into heaven, where he lives and reigns as our benevolent and loving King eternally,” Canon Weaver said. “All of these mysteries in the life of our Divine Lord center around the reality of his incarnation — the mystery of the Word made flesh for our redemption. Jesus Christ — yesterday, today and forever — from the crèche to the cross, Emmanuel is King.”

Complementing the main altar’s theme of the Incarnation, Canon Weaver explained, will be 10 side altars and shrines that “will all focus on this central mystery and highlight its various aspects, episodes, virtues, manifestations, defenders and proponents.”

Shrine Redesign

William Heyer, the architect behind the national shrine, told the Register that he is planning to have the drawings for the interior design finalized as early as March. The interior design will harken back to the architectural genius of the church’s original architect, Henry Schlacks, who was the founder of the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school.

Heyer said the original church (named St. Gelasius) was built in the era of massive Eucharistic Congresses, and Schlacks, who designed beautiful railway stations in the Western United States, gave the interior a wide-open feeling. While the building will preserve the façade, Heyer said the plan is to blend Schlack’s interior design with other basilica features that will help it function as a true shrine.

“They needed a church [in 1927] that would seat a lot of people,” he said. “What we need is a church that acts more like a shrine.”

The plan is to narrow the sight lines of the nave to focus on the high altar, where the Infant King will be enthroned amid a magnificent starburst background. Side aisles will be developed for people to freely visit the shrines along the wall or visit the confessionals without disturbing the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass taking place in the central nave.

“It encourages you to explore the rest of the church to find the other shrines,” Heyer said of the design.

Phase II, Heyer explained, is critical to making sure the house of worship, in all its beauty, will last for centuries. This phase will insulate the building and install modern fire-suppression systems. Heating and cooling systems will have to be installed, with ductwork that will keep the air circulating and prevent condensation from collecting at high elevations, as well. Modern electrical wiring and plumbing, as well as adding access ramps and elevators for those with disabilities, will have to be installed and up to code. Once the drywall is finished to fit the carved vaulted spaces of the interior, Phase III, where the beautification of the Church will take place and everything is finally completed, will begin.

Neighborhood Asset

Gabriel Piedmonte, co-founder of the Save the Shrine coalition, said the restoration of the shrine landmark since it was acquired by the Institute of Christ the King in 2016 has been a very positive experience for the Woodlawn neighborhood. Phase I of the project secured the building from the elements, but Piedmonte said funding and completing Phase II is critical. Only then will the threat of the wrecking ball be finally removed from the shrine.

“We see Phase II as the place for yeoman’s work,” he said, adding that raising $3 million-$4 million for this part of the project is essential for success. Once Phase II is complete, the canons will seek a permit so it may be occupied for public worship.

Saving the shrine from the wrecking ball after the 2015 fire was part of keeping Woodlawn’s spirit alive amid economic devastation. But Piedmonte said the shrine is now more a symbol of stability for the neighborhood, after an unexpected wave of new construction followed in the wake of the upcoming Barack Obama Presidential Center coming to Woodlawn.

“People continue to be pleased the identity of the neighborhood is being preserved.”

With the National Shrine of Christ the King, an old landmark will have new life in evangelizing countless generations.

“The goal here is a real first,” Heyer the architect said, “a national shrine to Christ the King.”

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Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

 

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