Witch School Opens Doors in Midwestern Town

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.

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