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PHOTO: Joe Putrock

The Witches in the House

Area Wiccans open their congregation—and explain their practices—to the community at large

By Ann Morrow


The wheel of the year is about to turn. On Oct. 31, the aging god of the harvest will be celebrated, evil spirits will be appeased, and the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead will be at its thinnest. Sounds kind of ominous, doesn’t it?

Not if you’re Wiccan. The above paragraph lists some of the elements of the Wiccan belief system; another one is that Oct. 31 ushers in the New Year. It’s a time for divination and festivity, and feasting. Wicca is an Earth-based religion—the turning of the wheel refers to the cycles of the seasons—and as such it’s similar to neopaganism, but with the addition of (among other things) an emphasis on ritualism and spell-casting. Many Wiccans refer to their rites as witchcraft or magick.

Wiccans also worship in groups that differ from the stereotypical coven of orgiastic revelers dancing naked around a bonfire. Trinity Temple in Albany serves a congregation of approximately 200 members, and does so in a former Episcopal outreach church. The temple’s high priest and priestess, Davron and Cassandra Michaels, are a longtime married couple (15 years) with a young son. They’ve known each other since childhood, when they attended the same Catholic church in Latham. Davron is a human-resources administrator; Cassie is a paralegal. One of their many un-Crowley-like activities is hosting Make Your Own Wand booths for children at fund-raisers.

At the temple, both Halloween and Samhain (the Celtic-derived witch word for New Year’s) are celebrated. The temple’s popular Witch’s Ball and Halloween party will be capped at midnight with a “real witch’s séance”—the witch being Cassie, a medium who heads the temple’s Astral Light Paranormal Investigations division.

“My forte is as a medium and fortune-teller,” says the priestess, who has long, straight hair and large, dark eyes. “I’ve always believed that ghosts and spirits live among us, and I would sit and commune with them when I was a child.” She adds that her ability to see “scenes from the future” was inherited from her Italian great-grandmother, a Strega witch.

“I will tell you, as one who has often been skeptical of those kinds of communications, that she is eerily dead-on at times,” says Davron. “It’s actually a little creepy, the accuracy she comes up with.” Along with ghost-hunting advice, the temple offers a variety of classes, from Wicca 101 to advanced alternative-healing courses, and has its own books-and-supplies shop.

In the brightly lit main room, the window frames are painted in cheerful primary colors (representing the four elements of earth, fire, air and water), while the wood-paneled walls create a 1970s ambience. Yet despite its family rec-room vibe and a kitchen bustling with devotees making hot cocoa and snacks, the temple is noticeably a place of unorthodox worship. The chancel altar is flanked by a cauldron and a ceremonial broomstick; a step below is a sparkly gold altar, in the shape of a crescent moon, that’s used for tarot-card readings.

Many of the temple’s rituals involve energy raising and self-empowerment, and watching the Michaels as they work in tandem to “charge” a vial of aromatherapy oils with a customized wand and an athame (a ritual knife) is more convincing than a print description could convey.

As Davron (a registered hypnotist who has been engaged in theology studies for most of his life) explains it, the purpose of spell-casting is to tap into the forces of nature. “Universal energy is all around us, we’re all comprised and infused with it,” he says. “We raise energy to send out our magical intents, our act of power to achieve our desires.”

According to Cassie, the central tenet of Wicca is: “Ain’ it harm none, do what you will,” to which Davron adds: “We’re all about empowering people. The whole nature of Wicca—contrary to other religions where you go to a church and the priest performs and the congregants are merely observers—in this religion it’s about the empowerment of everybody. We don’t have people sitting in rows or pews; people stand in a circle, they sing, they dance.”

But aren’t witch folk supposed to practice their craft in private, either alone or with an intimate coven of initiates?

“We thought it was really important to give the pagan community a community center, one that was open to all practices and faiths,” says Davron. “Many groups in the area are very restrictive. In traditional Wicca, people do rituals and magickal practices that can be very personal, and they’re selective about members for harmony and good working relations.

“We took a different approach, more of a congregational model,” he continues. “Our focus from the beginning was to have an inclusive group that embraced diversity. We’ll let anyone in to observe our worship.”

“And to have fun,” interjects Cassie, who mentions the temple’s children’s activities.

“We get members of Christian churches, priests, in here to watch our rituals,” adds Davron. “We had a Buddhist monk in who was curious, and enjoyed it—and did some wonderful chanting. We try to do good works and reach out to the community—not just to our own groups—and give back. We do food drives and clothing drives.”

Clothing drives and community activism don’t exactly jibe with the public’s perception of Wicca, and many Wiccans aren’t exactly thrilled about any partings in the religion’s shroud of mystery.

Davron admits that the temple has had more issues with pagans than any other religious group. “One can have that shroud of mystique and still be open,” he asserts. “Some disagree, they say ‘You shouldn’t allow others to view such things.’ But I say, ‘Come to one of our events, they’re a little mysterious.’ And we do have offshoot groups that are more closed—for example, Daughters of the Goddess, which is obviously only open to women.”

Beltane, or May Day, says Cassie, draws the most objections. “It’s considered very private, and the stereotype that witches dance around the maypole sky-clad [naked] is true.” Davron quickly adds, “We could not possibly keep our Beltane quiet. We have a maypole in the backyard, and we have May dances, but we don’t do sky-clad here. We’ve got children.”

Though the concept of a Wiccan enclave worshipping inside a formerly Christian church may seem heretical, the couple explain that the temple’s previous incarnation is actually a boon. Before the Michaels took over its administration three years ago, the building housed the Trinity Temple of the Holy Spirit, a metaphysical church. As any of the Wiccans at the temple are happy to relate, for 13 years a former pastor used the chancel to summon the archangel Gabriel. “It’s very spiritually active,” says Cassie from her seat in the chancel. “It aids me in practicing my [séance and fortune-telling] skills.”

The Michaels started their congregation in the traditional way, hosting get-togethers in their kitchen and attending services in other people’s living rooms. When they were looking for a new home, they thought of getting a house spacious enough to accommodate their religion. “Our group was getting too big, we were looking at houses with large rooms where there could be a dedicated temple, or a church with a house attached,” says Cassie.

“It’s a magical story,” says Davron of finding Trinity. “We were attending a local pagan event—I was doing a presentation—and we ran into an interim pastor [of the Holy Spirit] church. He had wanted to meet me, and when we were introduced, our eyes locked. I said, ‘We’re looking for churches,’ and he paused, as our hands were still shaking, and he said, ‘Would you like to buy our church?’ And I said yes.”

“It’s had 40 years of channeling energy,” says Cassie. “When I walked in, it just felt right. Davron and I looked at each other and said, ‘The search is over. We’ve found our spot.’” “Now that we’ve got hundreds of people milling about,” adds Davron, “we’re kind of glad it’s separate from our house.”

Trinity Temple (279 Whitehall Road, Albany) will hold a Witches’ Ball with buffet, wine and beer on Saturday (Oct. 28) from 6 PM to midnight. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 in advance. On Tuesday (Oct. 31), a formal party and midnight spirits supper will be held. Call 489-7119 or visit www.trinitytemple.net for more information.



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