IRVING PARK — A spiritual center and ashram is now open in the former Irving Park United Methodist Church following a building renovation — and delays caused by the pandemic.
The Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, a nonprofit based in suburban Homer Glen that practices the teachings of Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda, took over the historic campus at 3801 N. Keeler Ave. at the end of 2019 from the Irving Park United Methodist Church.
The campus was home to the congregation for more than 125 years but it was sold for $1.7 million after being on the market for nearly a year. The congregation decided to sell because of dwindling membership and not having enough money for needed renovations, pastors previously told Block Club.
The spiritual society was able to buy the building thanks to money from 6,000 donors nationwide, said minister Swami Ishatmananda. But repairs to the basement, roof, upstairs lofts and exterior brickwork needed to be completed before opening, which cost the center another $800,000 or so, he said.
For the ashram portion of the center, which is part of the sanctuary building, renovations included adding bedrooms, bathrooms and making the space compliant with city regulations for residential dwellings, which cost even more money, he said. But as more visitors come from all over the world, so do the donations.
“When people come to visit, they donate,” Ishatmananda said. “When Hindus go to a holy place, they always donate.”
The renovations, as well as moving necessary equipment and religious materials from the suburbs — combined with the pandemic — delayed the society’s opening plans. But the rehab was finished in May and its doors officially opened in June.
The building is named Home of Harmony and offers free yoga and mediation classes 11 a.m. Sundays; religious talks and philosophy discussions by diverse religious leaders; and cultural programs designed to connect different faiths.
Ishatmananda wants Home of Harmony to be a “home for all people” and religions — a place where people can come to learn about diverse faiths and see how connected and similar they are.
“This is not a Hindu or a Sikh place,” he said. “This is a place for everyone where they can come and without hesitation and express their views. … Someday, maybe the personalities of the Dalai Lama or the Pope will come and visit.”
The sprawling campus features a basement where the yoga and meditation classes take place, as well as a kitchen and library with religious texts and spiritual books. In the main vestibule upstairs, the pews face a large statue of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a 19th-century mystic and yogi. He practiced Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and “realized all paths go to the same goal” which is God and love, Ishatmananda said.
In the loft on the third level, a shrine for prayer features images of Paramhansa, Vivekananda and other Indian spiritual leaders. Mini-classrooms, each designed for the teachings of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, border the sacred room.
The Irving Park location is a way for the society’s followers to better access its services and visit. With the neighborhood’s proximity to public transportation, train and highway access, the building was a good fit for a city expansion, the minister said.
It’s not the first time the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago has found a home in the city. The nonprofit was established in 1930 in the Gold Coast before moving to Hyde Park in 1966 until 2008. That location brought people from all over the world, he said. But limited parking and an increased membership impacted the South Side campus, so the previous minister decided to move its ashram and center to the suburbs.
However, some members wanted a more central location and missed the city center, Ishatmananda said.
Pradeep Muzoomdar, a longtime member of the society who teaches yoga and meditation at Home of Harmony, also hopes his classes can reach more people and help uncover the yoga philosophy.
Muzoomdar has been a yoga teacher for seven years and teaches ashtanga yoga, which focuses on the eight limbs of yoga that include asana postures, breathing techniques, self-discipline and meditation. He wants to teach students that yoga can help people achieve their goals, tap into spiritual growth and let go of bad habits if they practice intentionally.
“The class is 30 minutes of asana and 30 minutes meditation and breathing techniques and sharing of wisdom,” Muzoomdar said. “If you do this regularly, it will help in reaching the goal. I keep on reminding people about having a goal for everything you do. Your sorrows of life will never be reduced unless you keep a goal of overcoming your negativities.”
Home of Harmony is looking for more certified yoga teachers who have a background in ashtanga yoga. Those interested can reach out to Muzoomdar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Homer Glen location will remain as a space to practice rituals, while the Irving Park location will serve as a place for community discussions and events surrounding spirituality, yoga and religion.
Home of Harmony also wants to open a cultural school for small children to introduce them to various belief systems and host cooking events where diverse religious leaders can showcase recipes from their faith and connect with other chefs, the minister said.
Its August lecture series called “Know and Love” began over the weekend and will feature free talks on religious and spiritual growth at 4 p.m. every Saturday. At 4 p.m. on Aug. 21, the center will host a special concert called “The Melodies of Judaism” that will feature a professional Jewish band.
More concerts, events and programs are in the works and will be posted outside on the building’s bulletin board, though owners are working on creating a website and social media for the space, Ishatmananda said.
For now, he encourages neighbors to stop by and meet the team, attend its events and help establish the center on the Northwest Side.
“This is where people can come to pray, study, stay and connect — all of this in one place,” he said.
“This will bring a great name to the locality,” he said. “If the neighborhood understands it, this will be a great place. It could be a landmark for Chicago and bring people to show in America, we can provide a place where everyone is welcome.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: