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Witch school opens in midwestern town

Friday, June 30, 2006

In the "Harry Potter" series, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry sits in a mystical Scotland location, shrouded by magic that hides it from unknowing humans.

Starting next week, in the unlikeliest of places, a real witch school will open its doors to the public in a place known as the Sweet Corn Capital of the World.

After almost five years of existence on the Internet, Witch School is expected to operate under normal business hours in the town of Hoopeston, Ill., about 100 miles south of Chicago.

The school is dedicated to educating the public in Wicca, a neo-Pagan religion that incorporates nature and magic into its theology. Until now the school has existed almost entirely on the Internet.

Ed Hubbard, the school's CEO and director, was lured to Hoopeston by what have been considered to be some of the lowest real estate prices in the country.

The town is known primarily for its annual Sweet Corn Festival; its high school mascot known as the Cornjerker; and the National Sweetheart Pageant, which has produced eight Miss America winners.

The town could soon be known as a Pagan colony, after Witch School starts letting visitors utilize its ritual space, view the studio where it produces videos for the Internet, and peruse its library of religious, metaphysical and historical texts.

It's a humble beginning, Hubbard says. The school is adorned with a "Witch School" sign and has maintained a quiet presence since moving to Hoopeston in 2003. He says that with an estimated 30 new students to 50 new students registering on the Web site every day, the "cyberministry" is rapidly growing.

The school has roughly 120,000 active students who enroll in Witch School's Internet courses, which range from Druid and Celtic history to crystal and gem magic, Hubbard says. Students then take at least one test a month to stay active and can eventually become an accredited member of the clergy.

"We're really getting to be a functional community," Hubbard said of the increasing presence of Witch School online. The school is also increasing its visibility in Hoopeston.

Not-So-Warm Welcome

When Hubbard first announced plans to house Witch School in Hoopeston, population 6,000, it caused an uproar among some residents, who feared the school would bring notoriety to the central Illinois town.

In 2003 as he finalized plans to move from Chicago to Hoopeston, residents of the town and its surrounding areas mobilized, signing petitions in opposition to the school and lobbying the City Council to try to stop it.

"We did what we felt was our place to do at the time," said Pastor Steve Nelson of Hoopeston's First Baptist Church. He was one of several pastors who had held prayer meetings outside of Witch School's property.

Nelson says the people of Hoopeston are all too often reminded of the school's presence, because it occupies a former brick horse stable and it is in the middle of town near the Hoopeston Civic Center.

Still, he says he has come to accept the school as a permanent fixture and moved on, even though he doesn't approve of Wiccan beliefs.

"I just disagree with their anti-God approach and feel it's not good for our community," he said. "When given the opportunity, I would speak against it."

Witch School isn't the only Wicca-friendly business that has been lured to Hoopeston by low real estate prices.

There is a Wiccan-owned bookstore, and Catherine Novak moved her crafts and herbs shop from Virginia Beach, Va., to Hoopeston to cut back on expenses and expand Internet sales.

Novak describes her business, Beads and Botanicals, as a combination of New Age and hippie. She says that in the six months it has been open, her business in Hoopeston has suffered from a perceived connection to Witch School and Wicca.

"A lot of people in this area are nervous about new things," she said.

Novak says some of the locals balked when she offered a newsletter about herbs and jewelry-making, and others have been taken aback by the voodoo dolls she sells. She emphasizes that she also sells Christian postcards.

"I don't see any reason to promote any religion over anything else," she said. Novak says she isn't "pounding the pavement for Wicca" and considers herself pagan, a broader term that could encompass several religions, including Wicca.

A Growing Religion

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, there were approximately 134,000 Americans claiming Wicca as their religion in 2001 -- up from 8,000 people in 1990.

"It's still a very small group, but it is growing," said Ariela Keysar, co-author of the book "Religion in a Free Market."

Keysar, an associate research professor at Trinity College's Public Policy and Law Program, worked on the study, which is one of the broadest surveys on religion in the United States.

Part of this growth could be attributed to the prevalence of Wiccan Web sites and portrayals of witchcraft in Hollywood movies that have been "less than negative," Hubbard said.

As for his students, he says they come from everywhere: South Africa and Croatia to Australia and Uruguay via the Internet. Witch School is not alone online.

Like Witch School, the Cherry Hill Seminary in California offers pagan-related classes on the Internet. However, Kirk White, the school's president, says there are a few differences in its education.

"It poses a number of unique challenges when you're talking about one experiential-based thing like religion," he said.

The Cherry Hill Seminary is a three-year program that requires an on-campus residency to include a more hands-on approach. Still, White says he respects what the Witch School does.

Hubbard, the Witch School's director, considers his decision to move the institution to Hoopeston as an experiment in religious tolerance. Most residents of Hoopeston are at least neutral toward Wicca and Witch School, he says.

When Witch School finally opens its doors to the public on July 1, Hubbard says he won't expect a flood of visitors, though he feels it will be a step toward acceptance as Wiccans in Hoopeston.

"Three years ago the question was did we have a right to be here," he said. "Now it's can we be successful."

(Copyright ©2014 ABC News Internet Ventures.)

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