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Church of Scientology plans Illinois headquarters on Printer's Row

Lulu Belle


Church of Scientology plans Illinois headquarters on Printer's Row

Convicted of fraud in France, impugned by former celebrity members and accused of coercing estranged practitioners to stay against their will, the Church of Scientology has encountered a fair share of bad publicity in recent months.

But in Chicago, the religious movement founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard appears to be flourishing. Signaling that success are plans for a new seven-story Illinois church headquarters slated to open next year in Chicago's historic Printer's Row.

The restoration of the $4 million red brick edifice at 650 S. Clark St. built in 1914 follows the church's plan of acquiring and restoring historic structures that embody a city's aesthetic.

More than 70 buildings have been acquired around the globe as part of a multimillion dollar expansion program. More than two dozen churches are set to open in the U.S. before the end of next year.

In Chicago, the 50,212 square feet of space will accommodate worship, courses, spiritual counseling known as auditing, community outreach and church administration.

"That's one of the reasons we need such a large space," said the Rev. Jesse Wells, an ordained Scientology minister, "to accommodate all the activities."

Introduced in Illinois in 1974, the church most recently has been housed in the Hubbard Dianetics Foundation -- a storefront on Lincoln Avenue. But Rebecca Cusano, a spokeswoman for the Illinois church, said activities and membership have outgrown the space.

A film room doubles as a chapel for Sunday services. People study for courses in the same bustling room where visitors stop by to learn about the church, volunteer ministers make phone calls and staff conducts business.

Cusano said about 60,000 people have come through the doors of Illinois churches since 1974. In addition to its headquarters in Chicago, the local church has five missions, in Peoria, Champaign, Elgin, Des Plaines and Milwaukee. Hundreds of individuals do home-study courses, Cusano said.

She said the 10 million-member church has grown exponentially since it earned recognition as a religious organization in 1993, and even more so since it unveiled its social betterment programs that include drug rehabilitation and literacy. Designs for the new building devote entire floors for auditing, chapel space and digital displays that will be open to the public.

On a recent Sunday, dozens gathered in the public space for a brief service. A minister read aloud the church's creed, a statement by Hubbard about personal integrity, a lecture by Hubbard about kindness and the church's prayer for "total freedom," also composed by Hubbard.

Controversy has swirled around Scientology since Hubbard founded the church in 1954. He taught that men and women can better their lives by learning more about themselves and each other. Self-examination takes places during spiritual counseling sessions known as auditing. Hubbard's book "Dianetics," which explains what Hubbard believed caused irrational behavior, is considered scripture.

Opponents, such as a group calling itself Anonymous, claim the church targets its critics, overcharges for spiritual counseling and literature and doesn't tell the whole truth about its teachings.

Some scholars of new religious movements blame the church's heightened sensitivity for fueling controversy. The Church of Scientology carefully guards some of its theology and operations. For example, job applicants are asked whether they have worked for an intelligence agency.

"It has started working against their own best interests," said Hugh Urban, a religion professor at Ohio State University. "This element of suspicion has become a part of the institution. It's always afraid of attack and afraid of information leaking out."

Comparing church records to files in a therapist's office, Cusano said safeguards are necessary to protect the privacy of members who have gone through auditing.

Scholars of new religious movements also argue church membership has declined despite claims to the contrary. The church's claims that it's the fastest growing religion in the 21st century are "demonstrably not true," said David Bromley, a religion professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He said construction signifies large coffers, not necessarily a growing membership.

In fact, many people who seek Scientology services don't join the church. Members say they don't have to join. Wells, a carpenter, said the more prominent location will improve access to the practical tools Scientology has to offer for people of all faiths -- not only Scientologists.

"The whole idea is to change conditions for the better," he said. "Almost anyone has a condition in their life that could stand improvement. (Scientology) restores your own innate goodness."

Connie Black has been a member of the Chicago church for 15 years. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she was introduced to principles of Scientology at a chiropractor's conference. The practices and principles answered many of the questions faith had failed to answer, she said.

Miss Penguin

Patron with Honors
Now cult membership is at 10 million, as opposed to the 8 million reported a few weeks ago. I guess is is all in who you ask.