In July of 2003 utility workers, thwarted from shutting off the utilities by an industrious nun who refused them access, gave Woodlawn residents their first clue that the demolition of St. Gelasius Church was imminent. The church’s architect, Henry J. Schlacks, was well known to Preservation Chicago because he had also designed St. Boniface Church, which the organization was also battling to preserve.
Because St. Gelasius, built in 1923, was rated Orange, questions arose as to why a public notice of its demolition was not posted on the city web site, as required by law. Citing irregularities in the permit application, the city immediately shut down the demolition process.
Following that action, an awareness campaign to stop the demolition began when community activists Todd and Jenny Martin organized their neighbors, who did not relish having another vacant lot in their Woodlawn neighborhood. In late August of 2003, a moving and powerful rally was held on the steps of St. Gelasius Church. Organized by Preservation Chicago and the Woodlawn Coalition to Save St. Gelasius, the keynote speaker was then-20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, who pledged to “lay down in front of the bulldozer” to save the historic church.
At its September 4, 2003 meeting, with the full support of the alderman, the Landmarks Commission recommended that St. Gelasius be granted Preliminary Landmarked status. Fortunately, the Archdiocese was blocked from using the owner consent clause* for houses of worship. This clause in the Landmarks Ordinance allows active houses of worship to avoid landmarking without owner consent. Since St. Gelasius had been vacant for over one year, the City argued, landmark designation could not be blocked on the basis of the church being an active house of worship. The City then moved forward with Preliminary Landmark designation of St. Gelasius allowing it to legally void the demolition permit application and thus saving St. Gelasius from the wrecker ball.
In December of 2004, a new use for St. Gelasius Church was announced. Since that time, The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest have occupied the church and celebrate the Tridentine mass, which is spoken in Latin. The church has been renamed the Shrine to the Devine Mercy.
*Preservation Chicago continues to advocate for the removal of the entire owner consent clause in the Landmarks Ordinance.