Scientology stalled

Credit crunch and other spending put the brakes on the church's downtown project

The Montreal Mirror/February 26, 2009

The Montreal Church of Scientology has been saving up its pennies to build its own downtown utopia, but utopia can be expensive, especially during these threadbare times. The Montreal chapter is looking to finally get going with renovations to their $4.25-million 2007 acquisition-the La Patrie building at 182 Ste-Catherine E., on the corner of Hôtel-de-Ville that once housed punk venue l'X and music store Sound Central. There's just one problem: they haven't got the cash.

The Montreal chapter's public affairs director Jean Larivière says they're aiming at a $5- to $10-million budget to make the shell of a building a Scientology mecca. The new location offers three times more space than their current digs on Papineau and Mont-Royal E., and is part of the Church of Scientology's costly Ideal Org project, a recent international push to buy real estate and transform buildings into lavish Scientology centres. About 150 chapters are involved in the Ideal Org project, but fewer than 15 centres have been completed to date.

"When we [bought the building], we thought it was going to be a piece of cake," Larivière says. However, the recession and the $4-million Ideal Org currently being renovated in Quebec City have tapped local Scientologists dry. Larivière says the Montreal Church, like many others in North America, relies almost exclusively on donations-which means their Ideal Org will have to wait at least another year or two.

The international Church of Scientology has seen its share of controversy since its foundation in 1953, ranging from allegations of harassment, rumours of denying people proper medical care and recent attempts at Internet censorship, the latter of which spurred the formation of anti-Scientology group Anonymous in early 2008.

"I'd say Scientology is one of the most controversial [religious] groups, to say the least," says Mike Kropveld, who founded Info-Cult in 1980 to help inform those curious or concerned about new religious movements. And Anonymous is definitely concerned with some of Scientology's more eyebrow-raising practices, even though they believe in choice of religion. "Some people believe the Earth is not round. You can't stop that," says Montreal Anonymous chapter member Richard Rols. That said, the group will continue their monthly protests outside the Scientology building, wherever it may be.

Founded in the mid-1970s, the Montreal Church of Scientology doesn't keep formal membership records, although Larivière pegs membership at around 1,000 active Scientologists. However, Kropveld says he suspects the number is a little inflated, citing the 1991 Statistics Canada census, which estimated there were 1,220 Scientologists in the entire country, with 210 in Quebec. In 2001, Statistics Canada estimated there were 1,525 nationwide, with 300 in the province. While times have changed, Kropveld "would be surprised if 1,000 people [in Montreal] considered themselves Scientologists."

"They claim they have more members, but we highly doubt that," says Rols. He says that asking a group of fewer than 1,000 people for $10-million is a tad unrealistic: "It doesn't add up."

But for Larivière, the Montreal Ideal Org is a worthy investment that will help attract new members by providing film screenings, audiovisuals, educational material and other information to the public. Despite the current financial barriers, Larivière maintains that a 2010 completion date is realistic, "though it won't be easy."

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