The building once home to the Science Museum of Minnesota is now the largest Church of Scientology in the Midwest.
Brightly lit multimedia displays and books touting the beliefs of the controversial religion have replaced the museum's dinosaur collection at the three-level, 82,000-square-foot building next to St. Paul's famed Fitzgerald Theater. The facility opened to the public over the weekend.
Scientologists say the space -- known as an "Ideal Organization" -- was built to accommodate the growing number of Scientologists in Minnesota and four bordering states. They estimate 10,000 Scientologists in the five-state area, an increase from about 3,600 five years ago.
Despite its share of critics and skeptics, the religion founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard has continued to grow since its first church opened in California in 1954. Scientologists adamantly defend it against those labeling the group a cult or sham.
"We're definitely a religion," said Erin Banks, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology. "We have a congregation, we do Sunday services ... weddings. We believe you are a spirit. You have a mind and you have a body, but you yourself are a spirit."
The new center serves Scientology's mission, she said. "It's an applied religious philosophy. ... It is about what you come and learn here, you take it with you and apply it, share it with others, make your life better, make the lives of others better."
Center among 60 worldwide
The Church of Scientology Twin Cities is the newest of dozens of "Ideal Organizations" opened in the past five years. It's the fourth to open in 2011, joining locations in Tampa, Fla., Melbourne, Australia, and Moscow. Some 60 "Ideal Org" sites worldwide are planned.
The new St. Paul location includes several classrooms where people can learn about Scientology beliefs, as well as conference and meeting rooms, a cafe, bookstore and two saunas. The museum's old IMAX theater serves as a chapel, seating about 350 people.
Scientologists bought the building for $3.5 million about four years ago, according to Ramsey County property records. Renovations were expected to cost $2.5 million, based on city records; church officials declined on Tuesday to give the total cost of the renovation.
The new space replaces the Church of Scientology's location on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, which at around 17,000 square feet had become too small to satisfy growing membership, space for classrooms and other activities, said Nancy Schumacher, a spokeswoman for Church of Scientology of Minnesota.
"We have real diverse parishioners here, from all walks of life," Schumacher said. "We've got dentists, chiropractors, owners of companies. All ages."
Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology a few years after publishing his bestselling book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." Leaders say the religion has now expanded to more than 9,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups in 165 countries.
Scientology followers say the religion helps people improve their lives through self-understanding. Followers go through "auditing" sessions, in which they're asked questions to find sources of pain or stress in their life so they can shed the negativity. The result is more spiritual awareness and a better ability to succeed and help others, they believe.
Official religion since the '90s
The federal government gave Scientology religious status in the early 1990s, which exempts it from paying property taxes.
David Bromley, professor of religious studies and sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that Scientology wasn't always recognized as a religion by the federal government and that idea is still shared by some of its critics.
Scientologists have increased their public relations efforts to address that skepticism, he said.
"Their theory of the history of the universe challenges science," Bromley said. "They've been one of the most controversial contemporary religions groups .... There are some countries that have and some that have not accepted them as a religion."
Banks and others invited anyone interested to check out the new St. Paul location.
"We're very excited to have our doors open and welcome anyone to just come down here, see what we do, ask questions."