WORCESTER - With their own hands, members of the Islamic community poured concrete and put up walls, forging the foundation of the new 41,000-square-foot building that will house a school, gymnasium and prayer hall. "We would arrive at four in the morning on Saturdays to work," said Tahir Ali, media director for the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester. "It was quite a big job - 20-foot walls, planks and other hard labor. We would even use the headlights from our cars to help us work late into the night." Starting in April 2003, the community combined sweat equity with donated funds to bring the building to the brink of completion, with an official opening set for September. "The electricians, plumbers and other workers are in there now, doing the things that are better left to the professionals," Mr. Ali added. "But it has been a community project throughout. Even the contractor is part of our community." It is not the first time members have put on their hard hats and rolled up their sleeves for their worship center. Since 1979, Muslims have met in an old Lutheran church on Laurel Street that was meant to hold only 300 people.
"The abandoned church had one toilet that overflowed all the time, and oil heat," Mr. Ali said. "We got an estimate from a contractor for around $134,000. That was too much for us. So we decided to do it ourselves and completely renovated the 5,000- square-foot building for only $45,000." The group "took the bull by the horns," said Mr. Ali, and tore up old plumbing lines, renovated the balcony and added classrooms. "We returned the building to a house of God, a proper place of worship." That was when there were only a handful of people attending services, however. With the continued growth of Muslims in the area, the fixer-upper church that was only meant to hold 300 people now squeezes 600 to 700 members per worship session. Parking is a major problem for the Laurel Street location, and members are forced to rent hotel space to accommodate lectures and other special events. The new $3.3 million, three-story center will be right off Interstate 290 on a 2.5-acre parcel on East Mountain Street and will have plenty of parking and hold approximately 1,700 people. The second floor will be the prayer hall, or mosque. The services do not require chairs, but it will be able to fit 1,000 seats for lectures and other events.
The center will have 14 large classrooms for Alhuda Academy, offering kindergarten through Grade 12 for approximately 300 students. The school will house a high-tech computer lab, nursing station and teachers' lounge. The center will also have a full kitchen and an NBA-size basketball court. These extra services are intended to help attract youth to the center. "We are a good neighbor and want to be part of the community. We are even looking into a way to invite neighborhood organizations to share our facilities," said Mohammed Mushtaque, chairman of the board for the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester. The center is expected to be the largest Islamic facility in New England. A major goal for the community-based organization, which often participates in political and humanitarian partnerships and includes Arab, Sudanese, Indian, Spanish and American members, is to encourage a relationship between the Muslims and non-Muslims. "Our objective is not to convert. Our objective here is to learn," Mr. Ali said about the society's aim to act as an interfaith community. "We want people to come to the mosque to learn about Islam. I visit many churches. It is good to learn about different ways."