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50 Years of Drawing the Faithful and the Curious

Baha'i temple, which took a half-century to plan and build before it opened in 1953, embodies optimism, adherents say.

September 13, 2003|Religion News Service

WILMETTE, Ill. — Sacred snakes stored in hidden rooms. A gigantic fish tank with a live white whale. A huge fuel tank for German submarines. A meeting place for sun worshippers.

The domed structure on seven acres in Wilmette has been the subject of many peculiar rumors over the years, some of which linger even now. But regardless of whether they were drawn by those false stories, about a quarter-million people visit North America's only Baha'i temple each year.

"The temple is absolutely a magnet," said Arlene Jennrich, a Wilmette resident since 1954 and a Baha'i for more than 40 years.

The visitors include some of the more than 5 million Baha'is based in 236 countries and territories worldwide. They are often joined by hordes of tourists who pour out of buses or drop in while driving by, attracted by the sparkling temple that rises more than 160 feet above the shores of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago.

The temple, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is one of only seven Baha'i houses of worship in the world. Lush gardens, a domed space and a nine-sided design are a part of every such temple.

Planning and construction of the Wilmette temple spanned 50 years, beginning in 1903, and cost $2.6 million. The faith only accepts money from Baha'i members, so construction progressed slowly, said Pamela Mondschein, director of the temple.

"Some people say the Baha'is are the most optimistic [faith] because they built the temple over two world wars and a Depression," she said. A $6-million restoration project was completed in 1996.

Architect Louis Bourgeois, whose design was selected in 1921, nine years after the cornerstone was laid, developed his drawings for the temple's exterior ornamentation over eight years. After Bourgeois' death in 1930, John Earley transformed his plans into reality, using quartz stones in concrete to create a shimmering white surface. He finished in 1943.

For the interior, Alfred Shaw, who designed the Chicago Merchandise Mart and the interior of the Museum of Science and Industry, devised an open lace-like pattern in stone, organized into nine horizontal bays and four vertical units. The interior also features a series of symbols representing several different religious traditions, indicating the Baha'i embrace of all faiths.

Neda Loehle, a fourth-generation Baha'i from Naperville, visits the temple at least once a week and has given tours for 12 years.

"I look at it as a refuge from the world," she said. "The peacefulness that I feel ... when I go there, still to this day, I never take for granted."

Loehle said Baha'is from around the world visit on holy days.

"It's a great place to embrace people from all races and nationalities," said Jerridean Moore. Moore regularly travels about 35 miles from her home in Calumet Park to visit the temple, which has a seating capacity of about 2,000.

Mondschein emphasized, however, that the purpose of the temple is devotional. "There's a common misconception that this is a place where Baha'is come for church services," she said. Mondschein said people come to pray and connect with God on their own; the Baha'i faith doesn't recognize clergy or sermons. "It's between you and God," she said.

The Baha'i faith began in Persia in the late 19th century. The term "Baha'i" means "follower of Baha'u'llah," the religion's founder. Baha'u'llah taught the elimination of all forms of prejudice, education for all people, harmony between science and religion and the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth. He emphasized the unity of God, the unity of prophets and the unity of mankind.

Mondschein said the Baha'i inclusiveness of other religions can be a stumbling block for many people. But the Baha'is believe in progressive revelation -- that all major religions are successive stages in God's plan to educate humanity through divine messengers. "God at different times has sent different messengers to unify mankind," Loehle said.

Mondschein compared the progression through prophets such as Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad to moving through school. "The first-grade teacher knew what you needed to know in sixth grade, but you couldn't understand it yet," she said. Similarly, she said, each prophet was limited by the maturity of mankind at the time.

"The latest social teachings couldn't have been made 1,000 years ago," Jennrich said. She noted that many Baha'is come to the faith with a strong background in another religion and treasure that background.

Moore, who became a Baha'i about five years ago, had been a Christian. She said she read the Baha'i scriptures, which offer Baha'is guidance for living their lives. Moore said she had trouble accepting the Christian teaching that the world would come to an end.

"Things are still progressing, and people are creating things that will be beneficial to everyone," she said.

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