The former Science Museum of Minnesota is being transformed into the largest Church of Scientology in the Midwest.

Renovations started this week on the vacant downtown St. Paul building that the church bought three years ago.

It appears to be the church's first foray into St. Paul and its largest footprint in Minnesota. The building will serve followers from across the state, according to a video on the Scientology website.

Church officials did not return a message seeking comment on Thursday.

Dumpsters are out and a safety fence is up at 505 Wabasha Av. It used to be the old Science Museum and later a charter school.

Construction plans filed with the city call for a chapel and cinema in the old Omnitheater space, classrooms, offices and conference rooms, a gym and a bookstore.

Renovations are expected to cost $2.5 million, according to the city permit application. The permit was issued on Monday and nets the city about $22,000 in fees. JE Dunn is the contractor.

The St. Paul space will be about 82,000 square feet when finished. That's much larger than the church's storefront branch on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.

The church paid $3.5 million for the St. Paul building in the summer of 2007, according to Ramsey County property records. The three-story building was built in 1977 and sits on three-fourths of an acre.

The Minnesota Business Academy Charter high school occupied the space from 2000 to 2006.

Before that, the building was home to the Science Museum's dinosaur and fossil collection. The museum moved to its current Mississippi riverfront site in 1999.

A controversial church

Scientology has garnered its share of followers, skeptics and critics.

Some call it a dangerous cult or a scam. Websites are devoted to calling the church out.

Scientology followers say the religion leads to a clear mind and spirit.

Estimates have put the number of Minnesota followers at 500.

The federal government gave Scientology its religious status in the early 1990s, which exempts it from paying property taxes or disclosing financial figures.

Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1954, a few years after publishing a bestselling self-help book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."

It was an alternative to psychiatry.

Scientology followers say the religion helps people improve their lives through self-understanding.

Followers go through so-called "auditing" sessions, in which they're asked questions or given directions to find sources of "spiritual upset" so they can shed the negativity.

The ultimate goal is to be "Clear," a heightened state of spiritual euphoria and awareness.

Adherents pay for the training to reach that state.

The church has some big-name celebrity members, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

It has battled attacks by defectors, as well as lawsuits, but it continues to build in cities around the globe.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148