Temple of Witchcraft co-founder and high priest, and Salem native, Christopher Penczak made the presentation to the Salem Planning Board.
The creation of a community center has been a long-term Temple goal, according to Penczak.
“When we incorporated as a Temple to build a community to outlast any one of
us, we found our first office in Salem, N.H.,” said Penczak. “We loved that office space to hold rituals and classes, but wanted outdoor space and land, and when we were in
a financial position to obtain a loan and purchase, we found the perfect property, literally within walking distance of our office, keeping our center in Salem.”
As it stands now, the property has a Victorian-style house that is over one hundred years old on it, as well as a cottage, a barn, and a parking lot. The Temple of Witchcraft offers classes in their Witchcraft school program both on the property and online and hosts ritual gatherings for groups of fifty to one hundred people throughout the year.
“We are only legally able to open two rooms of the house to the public, a ritual room/teaching space and a business office/retail space,” said Penczak. “We have an outdoor ritual area we use for small gatherings and gardens where were grow a lot of plants for our ceremonial and magickal use.”
Razing the barn and building a new structure to replace it is at the heart of the proposed design for the community center. Penczak explained that it simply was not cost-effective to renovate the existing structure to create the kind of space they want. Part of the Temple’s proposal to the board involved educating the board members about the way their services work.
“While building permit planners are always looking at people in terms of square foot space, and there are certain codes for religious assembly halls that are different than retail establishments,” Penczak said.“We have had some difficulty explaining to the town that our ‘church services’ are not in neat rows like a traditional church. We operate in the round, with movement. They are not static, passive services, so even if we can legally accommodate more by square foot measurements, we would cap events based on the size requirements of a circle.”
Penczak said that while the concept of holding services in the round was difficult for some people to envision, he felt confident that by the end of the hearing the board members understood the premise and the reasoning behind the proposal for the new structure.
He also indicated that this most recent hearing felt much different than the one held when the Temple acquired the property in 2012.
“I will say the planning board was quite open to hearing about our unique point of view, and I didn’t feel discriminated against,” said Penczak. “Our first time around we had issues with people concerned if we were ‘really’ a religion, but thankfully that is settled now, and we have the same rights as any other religious group in town.”
In addition to the plans to raze and replace the barn, the Temple has plans for its outdoor spaces.
“Our hope is to have small shrines and ritual spaces in the wooded area of the land for solitary reflection upon the path,” explained Penczak, “and develop some further garden spaces dedicated to the gods and spirits. I’d like to raise a few standing stones. Currently, the foliage is very dense, but we imagine trails, not unlike a hiking trail in a state park. We want our impact to be as minimal as possible, but still be able to access the woods.”
There was one concern regarding the outside areas of the property, said Penczak.
“One neighbor feared a large bright neon sign, which has never been apart of our plans. People have had no problem finding us since 2012, so I don’t anticipate an issue.”
Penczak went on to explain that keeping, “the aesthetic and feel of the neighborhood and the New England charm of the house and barn,” is important to the Temple.
“We are a striking house at the top of a hill, and as a neighbor with the interest in faeries once said to me, ‘It looks like a Temple of Witchcraft, doesn’t it?’ Yes, it certainly does.”
Now that the proposal is in the hands of the planning board, the Temple of Witchcraft’s work has only just begun. The whole project, from approval through the completion of construction, could take anywhere from five to seven years to play out. First, though, they must get through the approval process.
“If our parking process in 2012 is any indication,” said Penczak, “it can take a few months of going back and forth to get approval and then sorting out the details. For our work, this is step one, so we can then take bids from construction companies on the approved plans, set a budget, and begin realistic fundraising.”
Penczak said that the Temple of Witchcraft is going to go about the fundraising process with great respect for civic responsibilities as community members.
“We felt we couldn’t go to the community with a nebulous idea of needing money, without showing that we got as far as having plans drawn and navigating the process of approval with the town,” said Penczak. “With that, we can fundraise and seek grants and other sources of funding.”
While the approval and building processes move toward completion, the Temple of Witchcraft plans to continue to work to further its mission.
“Well the community of the Temple of Witchcraft isn’t just Salem, NH, despite our ‘mother temple’ being here, said Penczak.“We will continue to offer education and service, and many of our ministers grow community in their own area, within and outside of the Temple proper. We continue to offer sacred travel opportunities, connecting to land and traditions elsewhere, primarily in the US and UK for now, but my goal is to expand that.”
Penczak said that over the years, local support for the Temple of Witchcraft has grown stronger, though there is still some element of misunderstanding and apprehension.
“As Witches continue to be the people you go to when you don’t know what to do,” he explained, “we have had a wonderfully strange array of phone calls, emails, and knocks on our door from locals looking for help on some level but sadly, there is still a bit of fear, a sense of breaking a taboo by asking for the help from the Witches even when freely offered.”
He recalled an instance when the Temple raised funds for a neighbor whose home suffered a fire.
“I remember an online comment warning them if they accepted [the funds raised by the Temple], they would be cursed. Thankfully they knew us by then and felt fine accepting it, appreciating the support.”
He also recalled numerous acts of hospitality and welcome from other local communities of faith, such as a helpful visit from a pastor when the Temple first set up shop in Salem and the time a church offered its space, free of charge, when the Temple’s rented space was unavailable for their Ostara ritual.
“I was blown away by their generosity,” said Penczak.
Penczak added that the Temple of Witchcraft strives to be a good neighbor and a valuable part of the larger community. It has done since it was created and will be doing so when the new community center is up and running.
“We continue to find ways to interface with near and far community for support and the center will help us do that.”
As with any other processes involving local government and construction companies, there will also be waiting. Penczak said that they are prepared for that.
“If everything can be completed within seven years of the approval, I will be very happy,” he said. “Our treasurer suggested reasonably in five years we would begin construction, though you know with magick, things can happen quicker.”