'Spontaneous combustion' responsible for destruction of 92-year-old Chicago church, fire dept. says

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
Chicago Fire Department battles flames as Shrine of Christ the King burns. | twitter.com/CFDMedia

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Over 150 Chicago firemen responding to a three-alarm fire on Wednesday battled the blaze that destroyed the church's newly restored roof and interior—but they were able to rescue a statue of the infant Jesus, made in the 1700s in Spain.

"The statue is the spiritual centerpiece of our shrine and its community, so people really spiritually identify with it," Rev. Matthew Talarico told the Chicago Tribune.

"It's iconic to symbolize all the work and the mission that we do at the church," he said. "It's important that people see that this has been preserved from past years and this is the first step on the journey forward and that Christ is still with us."

The Chicago Fire Department responded to a report of the fire around 5:45 a.m., quickly escalating the response to a three-alarm when it realized the extent that the fire had already spread throughout the building.

The women and children in the adjacent St. Martin de Porres House of Hope were evacuated for safety. "They were afraid the windows would explode," said Sister Therese O'Sullivan, co-founder of the shelter.

"I'm devastated," O'Sullivan said. "This is devastating."

Most of the fire was extinguished within a few hours, but the building continued to smolder.

After the building was nearly demolished in 2003, saved only by Sister Connie Driscoll, who physically barred the demolition crew from entry until the demolition order could be reviewed, the church, then called St. Gelasius, came under the care of Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which began a 10-year project to renovate the church at an estimated cost of $7.3 million, according to the church website.

Constructed in 1923, the church was in disrepair to begin with because it had suffered a fire in the late 1970s, which destroyed most of the interior.

Volunteers had been working as late the previous evening in the church applying floor varnish to the second floor.

The Chicago Fire Department tweeted the cause of the disaster: "Cause of 3 11 fire in church at 6401 Woodlawn is spontaneous combustion in rags used to apply floor stain." The city's fire media also posted a video of the statue and other artefacts being carried to safety by firemen.

Although the roof fell into the building and fire appeared to have touched every part of the interior, not everything was lost. The rescue of the statue of Jesus gives parishioners hope that the restoration of the church will continue.

"A lot of children identify with this statue," Talarico said. "They've seen it, they've been up close to it. Jesus is one of them. So to see Jesus last through this fire, he's still with them. That's a beautiful message of hope."

The church's Facebook page announced a public mass in thanksgiving that no one was injured in the church fire. People who were staying in the adjoining rectory smelled smoke, heard the fire alarms, and escaped uninjured.

"And hopefully," Talarico added, "in the future trials they [children of parishioners] might have in their lives as adults, they'll remember that Jesus is always with us in difficult moments such as what we've experienced today."

The church has requested prayers for the continuing renovation effort.