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Oily Rags Spontaneously Combusted, Starting Fire That Burned Down Church

By  Kelly Bauer and Sam Cholke | October 7, 2015 7:15am | Updated on October 7, 2015 2:30pm

The eight priests in the rectory spotted the fire and all got out unharmed. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

CHICAGO — Oily rags used to apply floor stain are being blamed for the extra alarm fire that ravaged the landmark Shrine of Christ the King church in Woodlawn.

The Chicago Fire Department said spontaneous combustion started the early morning fire.

The smoke detectors went off about 5:45 a.m. in the adjoining rectory and the priests and canons discovered the main structure of the church was on fire.

About 150 firefighters and paramedics were called to the scene, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said.

The roof caved in around 8:50 a.m., according to a tweet from the Chicago Fire Department. Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas explained that the church's open, sweeping architecture made it especially susceptible to structural damage as the fire raged inside the building at 6401 S. Woodlawn Ave.

There were no reported injuries, and the eight people in the rectory and approximately 40 people from a nearby shelter for women were evacuated.

The church's congregation and staff prayed across the street as firefighters drenched the roof from two ladder trucks.

"The church burned once before and was rebuilt by 1980," said the Rev. Matthew Talarico. "Then, like now, we'll band together and with the help of God we'll rebuild for the health of the neighborhood."

The building was more than a church. As a one of the city's rare shrines, the priests are tasked with maintaining the building as a place of Catholic pilgrimage and protecting the statue of Christ the Child, which might have burned in the fire.

"We'll find out what happened, they won't let us in yet," said the Rev. Michael Stein. "It's a reminder that our lord became a man and he was born a child just like the rest of us."

Parishoners were hopeful that the idol and the more than 80-year-old alter to Thérèse of Lisieux would be survive.

"Some people are hoping for a miracle," said Anatole Upart, whose wife and two of his four daughters were baptized at the shrine.

Upart mass on Sundays at the last Catholic congregation in Woodlawn has swelled from just a handful to nearly 200. He said the parishoners were already devoted to restoring the church and said he thought that attitude would continue.

"It's a fact of life, things burn down," Upart said water from two ladder trucks cascaded down the side of the shine. "But this is where our kids played, it's sad to see a pond where there was nice grass."

Designed and built in 1923 by Henry J. Schlacks, who was inspired by Italian architecture, the church was closed and slated for demolition after a 1976 fire "well-nigh destroyed the interior," according to Christ the King's website.

But in 2003, the community rallied to save it and the Archdiocese agreed to restore it — to the tune of $7.3 million. In 2004 it became an officially recognized landmark.

Services have been held there since 2008, though the building's restoration was slow, with the church still in need of a new ceiling and the roof being unfinished as of April 2014.

The roof had only recently been insulated and for several winters worshippers sat in the cold sanctuary because the heaters were too loud to hear the sermon.

McNicholas said authorities have not yet identified a cause of the fire but said he'd heard reports that "people were doing work in the church last night." The fire is not considered suspicious and investigators are still trying to determine its cause, according to a tweet from the department.

Langford said volunteers were varnishing floors and furniture on the second floor of the church and it is suspected that's where the fire started.

"Whatever was going could have been going for hours undetected," Langford said.

He said the Department of Buildings would make a decision about whether the shrine must now be demolished. He said he was hopeful that the bell tower was OK and the shrine could be rebuilt.

"As long as there's no tilting, it will be OK," Langford said.

The church's congregation is several hundred people.

The Rev. Matthew Talarico said the shrine will be rebuilt as it was after a fire in 1976.

Approximately 150 firefighters battled a blaze that broke out in the Shrine of Christ the King early Wednesday.

Parishioners were hopeful the shrine's historic idol and alter would be OK.

The fire destroyed much of the shrine's roof, which had only recently been insulated.



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