Emily Nielsen: The Shrine, Beloved Chicago Landmark, Endangered Again

Emily Nielsen Holding Save the Shrine Coalition Poster, surrounded by Gabriel Piemonte, Lisa DiChiera, Ward Miller, Bonnie McDonald and devoted preservation partners. Photo Credit: Save the Shrine Coalition

“When we first reported on Emily Nielsen in a 2016 ‘Women to Watch’ column, the fate of her campaign, #SaveTheShrine, was a cliffhanger. The Shrine of Christ the King at 64th and Woodlawn was marked for immediate demolition. Emily along with her co-founder Gabriel Piemonte and about 20 other committed volunteers, backed by professional preservationists, raced the clock to raise $650,000 and obtain 2,250 names on an online petition. The Woodlawn neighborhood made it their project as well and many from diverse religious backgrounds, including those without church affiliation, committed to the cause.

“At the time Emily commented: ‘We are delighted that the Archdiocese was able to come up with such an innovative solution to save the Shrine. It is now owned by the Institute of Christ the King, the international order of priests who have been serving the Shrine community since 2004. This is the only instance I know of where a diocese has divested itself of a historic church building, while transferring ownership to an entity which will continue to operate it as a place of Catholic worship. This is really a win-win-win for everyone: the faithful, the neighborhood, architecture lovers, and the Archdiocese.’

“The Shrine of Christ the King church, completed in 1928 as St. Clara Church and Landmarked as St. Gelasius in 2003, is a Chicago Landmark which has been damaged by fires in both 1976 and 2015. Reflecting the Renaissance Revival style with several Baroque elements, the church was designed by ecclesiastical architect Henry J. Schlacks, who later became the founding director of the Notre Dame School of Architecture.

“Over the past six years, more than $3 million has been raised to restore the Shrine, with funds coming from parishioners, preservationists and neighbors as well as the National Fund for Sacred Places. Nielsen, who serves as board president of Save the Shrine, led not only fundraising efforts but also the search for Save the Shrine’s Managing Director Jennifer Blackman.

“Nielsen addressed the National Trust soon after the victory, the youngest person to have been invited to speak to the organization. What had been a practically around-the-clock effort in 2016 became for all involved a success story. Not only were major preservation groups such as Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, and the Chicago Field Office of the National Trust critical to the success but also neighborhood groups in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and Kenwood joined the effort.

“Once again, all is up for grabs. On July 31st, in accordance with an order from the Archdiocese of Chicago, a sign was posted on the Shrine’s chapel door stating, ‘As of August 1st, the celebration of public Masses is suspended.’

“This announcement has implications not only for those who wish to partake in the Latin Mass, but also for Woodlawn area Catholics who now will have to go elsewhere for religious celebration. Suspension of the masses in Woodlawn relates to a recent papal decree limiting the traditional Latin Mass worldwide. St. John Cantius is the only remaining church celebrating this Mass in Chicago at this time.

“‘There is a widespread feeling of betrayal among all the groups who have supported the Shrine’s restoration over the past six years,’ Nielsen said. ‘Members of the First Presbyterian Church next door, which has been so supportive since the start, joined the Shrine’s Canons and faithful in their final procession around the neighborhood on July 31st. The university students who have given so many volunteer hours to the restoration project, both the Media Communications students at Kennedy King College down 63rd St. from the Shrine, and the graduate students from the University of Chicago who have participated through the Harris School of Public Policy’s Harris Community Action program, they have stayed engaged with the Shrine and I see their shock and disbelief in their reactions on social media.’

“‘The Shrine is a Chicago Landmark and we hope that this designation will be a strong protection,’ she said. Nielsen and other members of the Save the Shrine team appeared before the Chicago Landmarks Commission in August and September to tell their story.” (Carmack Bross, Classic Chicago Magazine, 10/29/22)

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