In for a spell of trouble

Illinois town alarmed, angry when `Witch School' moves in

October 28, 2007|By Megan Twohey | Megan Twohey,Chicago Tribune

ROSSVILLE, Ill. -- Things were already going downhill in this small farming community when the witches arrived.

Area factories had shut down. So had the local high school. A suspicious fire had destroyed much of the downtown. The use of methamphetamine was destroying families.

So when a group of Wiccans from out of town moved into a storefront this summer and put up a sign advertising "Witch School," it was only a matter of time before alarm bells sounded and tempers started to boil in this village of 1,200 about 125 miles south of Chicago near the Indiana border.

"Remember the Salem witch trials?" resident Adam Marganski said. "That's what is happening here."

After percolating behind the scenes, anger erupted into public action last weekend when several local churches canvassed the community with literature denouncing the witches and organized a meeting to plan further steps.

In a town that sometimes feels closer to the Bible Belt than to the city, churches had been holding weekly prayer sessions for months in hopes of driving the outsiders away. They had also erected a billboard denouncing Wiccan beliefs, proclaiming "Worship the Creator not Creation."

Fueling their sense of urgency was a ball held by the Wiccans last weekend to celebrate Samhain, their new year's festival, which falls on Halloween.

As more than 150 people filed into the shuttered high school Wednesday night for the meeting, Andy Thomas, youth minister at Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn't, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path.

"Rossville has fallen on hard times," Thomas said. "The school closed. This is a popular place for meth. We're like, `Great - now a witch school.' It feels like we're being attacked."

Donald Lewis, who serves as CEO of Witch School International, said it was the other way around.

"They're trying to make us scapegoats," he said as he slipped into the meeting unannounced.

Lewis, a rotund 44-year-old with a silver ponytail and goatee, said he started the online school in 2001 with two friends he met through the neo-pagan community in Chicago. All three were devoted practitioners of Wicca, a movement that, by some estimates, has hundreds of thousands of adherents nationwide.

Five of the school's administrators operate out of a humble white building with a green awning on Chicago Street, the main strip in downtown Rossville, which looks like an abandoned Hollywood set of a small town. Their office, which consists of five computers, copiers and a fax machine, is in the back of a store that sells silver wands, incense and colored candles wrapped in spells.

A door in the rear leads to the school's library, a musty room overflowing with books such as The History of Magic and the Occult.

The most popular courses teach students how to become a Wiccan, but the school also provides instruction on other topics, from aromatherapy to zombies. Lewis said more than 190,000 students have participated, most from the U.S., although many live in England, India and other countries. There are different types of paid memberships, including a lifetime one for $99.99.

Lewis said he believes a mother goddess gave birth to the world and can take a variety of forms - "like Jesus or nature or even Mickey Mouse." He said he believes in reincarnation and communication with the dead. He said he also believes in magic and openly calls himself a witch.

Lewis grew up in Danville, 15 miles south of Rossville. It was his idea to move the school's operation in 2003 from Chicago to this unlikely region of big skies and vast cornfields. Rent was cheaper. The group could afford space big enough for a proper shipping room. The group first landed in Hoopeston, seven miles north of Rossville.

Hoopeston, a town of 6,000, is known as the Sweet Corn Capital of the World. When residents found out the witches were coming, some of Hoopeston's churches held prayer vigils with the hopes of turning the Wiccans back. They also flooded a City Council meeting to protest.

"It was like a lynch mob," Lewis said.

The Wiccans were determined to stay, but after four years of opposition - some subtle, some less so - they decided to pack up and head to the village next door.

At first, Rossville offered a warmer reception. The mayor said publicly they were welcome to do business downtown.

But some churches and residents were upset to see their village portrayed as witch-friendly. They feared that the school could corrupt their children.

"We don't want them to go in there and get potions to put hexes on their friends," said Deb Robling, co-owner of a beauty salon on Chicago Street. Robling, also one of Rossville Church of Christ's 230 members, helped organize Wednesday night's meeting.

Keith Michaels, a Methodist pastor, took a different view.

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