The three-story church at 3935 W. Devon Ave. has a modern design that sticks out from the neighborhood, usually home to bungalows, one-story strip malls and historical buildings.
The church’s new home will allow for its growing congregation to have access to more services and be closer to its members, pastor Cristian Ionescu said.
“The location is much better and the facilities are better organized to suit our needs,” Ionescu said. “The design is also pleasing to the eyes.”
Since opening in 2001 in Albany Park, the congregation has grown to its current size of about 900 people.
The Romanian church was caught up in controversy last year for holding weekly services throughout the pandemic, which frustrated its Albany Park neighbors, who feared for their safety. It was one of the churches that sued Gov. JB Pritzker to try to invalidate state rules that banned large gatherings, including for church services, during the pandemic.
Ionescu was cited and fined for having more than 10 people in the old sanctuary for worship during the shutdown, but he did not stop hosting in-person events. Illinois churches and places of worship were allowed to have in-person activities again after Pritzker backed down after a few weeks.
Charges against Ionescu were dropped earlier this year, coinciding with the soft opening of the Sauganash church.
Ionescu said he does not regret violating government rules, which he called “arbitrary” and not applicable to places of worship.
“Those rules were a death sentence,” he said. “The church is not made to exist without physical gatherings.”
Other churches have returned to online serves as the city is hit by a fifth wave of COVID-19 cases. Ionescu said his church’s in-person gatherings will continue, though the congregation also streams its services on social media. The church will continue to be sanitized daily, and people have space to spread out, he said.
The church’s new home takes over Monastero’s Ristorante & Banquets, which closed in 2017 after 55 years in the neighborhood. The owners accepted an offer from the church, which also took over M&M Landscaping, just east of Monastero’s, to use for more parking.
The church moved from its Albany Park location earlier this year. That location was getting too small for the Romanian church and had no community hall, said Raffi Arzoumanian, the principal architect at a+c architects, which designed the building.
“The congregation outgrew the space, and most of the members live further north, like in Lincolnwood, Glenview and this area,” Arzoumanian said. “A lot of people are coming from the north. This is an ideal area in terms of location.”
Arzoumanian is not a member of the church but worked closely with Ionescu and many of its members — including Dorel Ardelean and Danut Balint — to bring the building to fruition.
Ardelean and Balint helped Arzoumanian’s team with tasks throughout construction and were part of at least 30 volunteer members who set up the 1,200-seat sanctuary for its grand opening.
“Before the opening, everyone was here until midnight,” Arzoumanian said. “You needed everyone’s time and efforts to make it happen. … This is really a result of faith because every construction project has issues [but] I cannot tell you that we hit any hurdle or blockage that was not easily overcome. It was the smoothest project ever, given the size of it.”
In addition to the sanctuary, the three-story building has a banquet hall for weddings and events, 10 classrooms, a bookstore, smaller communal spaces and an upcoming bookstore and rooftop deck.
When asked what was their favorite part of the building, Ardelean and Balint said, “Everything” and laughed.. But if they had to pick, they said they would say the sanctuary or the banquet halls, which have more space for events.
“We’ve already had two weddings here,” Balint said, adding that about 600 people were at one of them.
Both are fans of increased parking onsite, too. The church has 140 parking spaces, an upgrade from the Albany Park location.
Ardelean is happy to have helped work on the construction and work in a building that will become part of the congregation’s history and allow there to be more programs, resources and events for families.
“I am proud to be part of” the congregation, he said.
Arzoumanian said the church project might be one of his favorite projects so far — and he’s designed several religious buildings like synagogues, mosques and multi-use community centers. He especially liked the challenge of adding the stained glass artwork from the old space into the new sanctuary.
“That itself was a huge accomplishment because stained glass is very fragile … especially in those sizes,” he said.
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