Coming Soon to a Town Near You!
By Lorie Polansky
Background: way, way back!
Genealogy holds little appeal for me, and I am not an adherent of ancestor
worship – but I surely admire and thank my ancestor who reached the
shores of Virginia in 1633. I shudder to consider the possibilities
had he stayed in County Fermanagh, Ireland!
In 1775, my great, great, great, great-grandfather, Michael McGuire,
joined the Continental Army. He served as a captain directly under
General George Washington. In 1787, he was awarded a land grant as
payment for his service during the Revolutionary War. This meant he
could claim all the land around which he could walk his horse from
sunup to sundown. He had previously traveled through Central
Pennsylvania and decided to stake his claim there.
At the time, he was co-owner of a tavern in Taneytown, Maryland. His
partner, also a veteran, traded his land grant for Michael’s share
of the tavern. Now Michael had two days in which to block out his
territory. Naturally, he chose the time of the summer solstice! Upon
taking possession, he became the first white man to inhabit that part
of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This land is largely in what is now Cambria County, Pennsylvania.
Captain Michael McGuire died in 1793, bequeathing one-third of his
property to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, to be held in trust for
resident clergy. Part of it became the Borough of Loretto. In 1796,
Rev. Demetrius Augustine Smith (the alias used by the Russian
prince/priest, Demetrius A. Gallitzin) arrived at McGuire’s Settlement,
as it was then known. He saw the potential of the area as a sanctuary
for Catholics and invested $150,000 of his personal fortune in land
adjoining that which Michael McGuire had given to Bishop Carroll.
It is mainly because of McGuire’s largesse that Catholicism flourished
in this region of the state, but Gallitzin’s legend of trading princely
robes for priestly ones gets more attention. The town of Loretto has
been under church control for centuries. It once included St. Francis
Seminary, which was sold to the federal government when vocations to
the priesthood faltered. It still boasts Prince Gallitzin’s Chapel
House (historic site), the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel,
St. Francis University, and the Carmelite Monastery (strangely named,
since it houses nuns). Retired Franciscans live at the former estate
of Charles M. Schwab, steel magnate.
Prince Gallitzin is much revered locally. Presently, he is under
consideration by the Vatican for canonization. The small town of
Gallitzin was, of course, named in his honor. It is into this complacent
nest of Catholics that we move for “the rest of the story!”
Making a statement
Our little band of heretics has discovered that nothing is more
disturbing to a placid community of Christians than painting a
building bright red and placing two-foot-high white letters on the front
that read “ATHEIST STATION.” It is akin to disturbing a nest of
slumbering rattlesnakes – and once roused, the commotion is something
Last summer, my mother deeded over to me her property at 320 Railroad
Street in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania. It is located along the mainline of
the old Pennsylvania Railroad, at the highest point between Pittsburgh
and Philadelphia. It is famous for the twin tunnels, completed in 1853
and 1905 by immigrant laborers. These tunnels were targeted for
destruction during the Civil War and again by the Nazis during World
The small lot is the site of a 2-1/2-story frame building – one of the
oldest in the town – which had housed her barbershop for twenty years.
The building had been vacant and was suffering from obvious neglect
when I took possession. In July, I enlisted the aid of my two main men,
Ron Stauffer and Chris Davis, for rehab of the outside.
Jesus would have been proud of our carpentry work!
If you are not a weekend handyperson, you may skip this paragraph and
just study the photos. We stripped off the old shingles and tarpaper.
To limit vandalism, we closed in the rear and side windows. Then we
applied T-111 and primer. Ron (an irrepressible railroad buff) suggested
we paint the building “PRR red” – in keeping with the theme of the town.
The shade of custom-mixed red was lighter than expected. Perhaps one
more application would have produced a truer match – but none of us
were sufficiently motivated. Next, we painted the windows and trim
white and installed a white steel door. Finally, we repositioned my
mom’s hand-made one-foot-high wooden letters (freshly painted white)
that spelled out “BARBER SHOP.”
The work was completed in early September 2001. Many favorable comments
were heard about the improvement in the building’s appearance. As a
lark, I made a certificate on my computer, which stated that the
National Railroad Historical Society (purely fictional) had honored me
with the “Bells and Whistles Award” and that the work had been done with
the help of their grant and private donations.
A “for rent” sign was placed in the window, and several newspaper ads
were run. Only two people responded, and neither completed a rental
application after I informed them that a credit check was required. I
put the matter on a back burner as winter approached.
Fast-forward, now, to May of 2002. The Annual Convention of American
Atheists in Boston had instilled Ron and me with activist zeal. Upon
returning home, one of our missions was to attempt to convince the
Veteran’s Hospital to disallow a reprise of last year’s bible-thumping
God and Country Rally by Faith Baptist Church. I sent a letter to the
hospital director. When no answer was forthcoming, Ron and I made
several follow-up phone calls.
Five weeks after the hospital received my letter, I received a reply
advising me that its policy permitted this use – and that I was free
to peacefully protest (as we did last year) or have a similar program.
I immediately submitted an application, and our group began planning
our “Secular Salute.” I sent a Press Release to every local radio and
television station and to the newspapers, and it was ignored.
This was not unexpected – but this time, I became really annoyed. How
could we ever get recognition by the media? The religious dominate the
fourth estate – perhaps because they can afford to buy so much
advertising space. The opinion page is chock-full of nauseatingly
pious pap, and there is a plethora of “news” articles quote people
invoking their god. Our paper even has a special Religion section every
Inspiration struck! Let’s use the old barber shop to get our message
out! Ron and Chris relished the idea. Why not change the lettering on
the front, and use the blank side wall facing the railroad tracks for
a billboard? Chris drew the letters for ATHEIST STATION on sheets of
three-quarter-inch plywood and cut them with a scroll saw. Ron and I
primed and painted them (white).
“The better the day, the better the deed” – so on the Sunday before
our Secular Salute, we switched the lettering. I put signs in the
window advertising our program at the V.A. Hospital and one saying,
“Coming soon – watch for our window display.”
We let the pot simmer, and eight days later it boiled over. Chris
called to inform me that a notice had been posted on the building,
warning that I was in violation of an ordinance limiting the size
of signs allowed in the borough to three square feet. A $500 a day
fine would be imposed if I did not file a permit application within
An Altoona Mirror reporter left two messages for me, requesting an
interview (one on my business number and one on my newly acquired
ATHEIST STATION number). Two days later, the front page carried the
story, complete with a colorful photo of ATHEIST STATION.
Payback is Hell!
I sweet-talked Ron and Chris into another day’s work at ATHEIST
STATION. First, they protected the glass of both windows with sheets of
Plexiglas. Then, the larger of the front windows was converted into a
display case. The ledge was widened to 14 inches, the sides encased,
and a set of plywood doors were cut for the back of the case. It was
Ron and I toured the borough, photographing signs that were obviously
larger than stipulated in the ordinance. I started a file for the ACLU
lawyer with correspondence, permits, ordinances, and photos.
Goaded by the insults of the Catholic priest, my previously nebulous
window display ideas crystallized in my mind. I would dedicate my first
exhibit to my late husband, Joe Polansky, who had spent eleven years
in a Benedictine monastery and was an Atheist for his remaining
twenty-five years. The theme would be the Catholic Church. I began
churning out colorful pages with brief, large-print articles on the
- Pope Joan (the one woman who made it to the top of ecclesia)
- Adolph Hitler: baptized Catholic, altar boy, aspirant to the priesthood
- Mother Teresa – the Merciless Hag
- Fishermen of Men’s Money (the financial reason for eating fish on Fridays)
- Federal prison population statistics for Catholics vs. Atheists
- A pie chart showing 75% of church donations going to sexual abuse cases
- A daisy (he loves me, he knocks me up) of natural family planning
- Bumper stickers: “Thou shalt not covet thine altar boy” and “Mary was an unwed teenage mother”
- A few pedophilia comics
These I pinned to two 24-by-35-inch corkboards which I mounted on the
rear doors of the window display.
From the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop, I acquired five scapulars for
a donation of one dollar (stamped “Separate Church and State”). A sign
told the story of how the Vatican mixed animal bones with human ones
and sold them as “relics.”
A chessboard added another splash of color on the white background –
with four bishops lying on their sides and a caption reading:
How many more bishops will fall?
How many bishops are pedophiles?
I had a small faux aquarium: pretty little plastic fish, sea horses,
and clams bobbing around in a lighted tank. I made a background of a
priest holding a communion wafer in one hand and a fishing pole in the
other, with dollar signs here and there. (This was placed beside the
Fishermen of Men’s Money poster.) The small light helps provide
nighttime illumination until Chris, official STATION electrician, has
time to install permanent display-case lighting with a photoelectric
For the sake of decoration, my final touches were a basket of ivy and
a small bud vase with berries and flowers. (And, at Ron’s urging, a
US flag mounted high on the side wall – for those whose small minds
equate Atheism and communism and/or lack of patriotism).
I had made some ATHEIST STATION postcards on my computer, using a photo
of the building for the front picture. As soon as I had completed the
window display, I went directly to the Gallitzin Post Office and handed
the clerk one of these. It was addressed to the priest who had equated
us with garbage in the Altoona Mirror article. It read:
Since you are so familiar with garbage, I’m sure you will appreciate
our first window display at ATHEIST STATION!
(signed) Lorie Polansky
Atheists thrown to the Christians
As required by the notice and a certified letter I received, I
submitted an application, a site plan, and a check for $10.00.
The work to be done included the signage.
The newspaper informed us that a Council Meeting was scheduled for
June 12. Since the matter of our “disgraceful heresy” would be a hot
topic, it was decided that several of us should attend. Bill Walker
volunteered to join Ron, Chris, and me. I treated the guys to a meal
at the Hong Kong Buffet, where we were well fortified for the upcoming
ordeal. Upon our arrival in the small town of Gallitzin, we noticed an
unusual number of vehicles parked near the borough building. Citizens
clustered outside and in the foyer. More people lined the hallway to
the meeting room, which had standing room only. It is my opinion that
they expected a lone woman to appear and that they were nonplused by
my sidekicks. All the people outside council chambers and several from
inside left the premises upon our entry.
John Wayne once remarked that courage was being scared to death but
saddling up anyway. I identified with that adage! Prior to Memorial
Day, my only experience with public speaking had been my last – I
promised myself! I had addressed my fellow recruits at the Amarillo (TX)
Police Academy in the mid-1970s: I was one of the “old” recruits, the
rest being testosterone-loaded 21-year-old guys. I was a woman, a
feminist – and a Yankee! My topic was the need for women in law
enforcement. The insolent ennui on the faces of my classmates spurred me
on, but I did not consider it one of my shining hours.
The borough had not provided me with an agenda. I glanced at the papers
of the woman next to me and was dismayed to see that I was next to speak.
Between an attack of nerves and the MSG in the Chinese food I had just
eaten, my mouth felt as if it were packed with cotton. Ron left the
room to find me a glass of water, but before he returned I was front
and center. Here are the words I used to address the members of council:
My name is Lorie Polansky, and I am owner of the building at 320
Railroad Street. I am also a member of ATHEIST STATION, which has
members from Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, and Clearfield Counties.
I am not a public speaker. However, circumstances require me to address
you tonight concerning the use of my building as a meeting place for our
group and a venue for displaying our views. Several members are with
me tonight to help answer any reasonable and pertinent questions.
I will try to explain briefly what an Atheist is – and what an Atheist
is not – by answering some questions that have been asked of me so far
by residents and reporters.
Most Atheists and Agnostics keep a low profile – in order to avoid
situations such as this. We don’t all declare our convictions with
bumper stickers or Letters to the Editor. But I would hazard a guess
that most of you in this room have known an Atheist or two in your
Everyone in this room was born an Atheist. Most of us were indoctrinated
by religious parents in what they believed to be the “one true faith.”
Every member of our group has been in your shoes, yet we were able
to cast aside superstitions that had ruled our lives. It might happen
to you someday, if you start to think for yourself!
Discarding one’s faith is very much like an alcoholic opting for
sobriety: each is recovering from an addiction. Each requires
introspection, courage, and self-reliance.
Some Atheists cannot risk their livelihoods. He could be the doctor
who delivered your babies – or the mechanic who keeps his mind
occupied while his hands fix your car. She could be the little old
lady beside you in the movie theatre who will take her secret to the
grave rather than offend her dear Christian friends – and that nice
young neighbor who always offers to cut your grass. (He learned early
the pitfalls of admitting his enlightened state when he was denied
membership in the Boy Scouts.)
Here are some facts about members of Atheist Station:
We do not believe in god, the devil, or the bible.
We do not go door to door, as do Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses, to try to convert Christians to reason.
We do not parade up and down streets carrying placards and banners –
unless we are reacting to Constitutional violations or we are lobbying
on the other side of an issue (such as reproductive freedom for women).
We are not members of the KKK – which, for your information, is a
We do not ask for donations – that is a practice used by churches.
We accept the reality of scientifically verifiable evidence.
We fervently act to safeguard SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE whenever
and wherever it is threatened (in keeping with this unique aspect of
our country’s foundation): for example, attempts to put prayer back in
schools, to place plaques of the Ten Commandments in public buildings,
or to siphon tax money into parochial schools or religious organizations…
At our meetings, we discuss issues of importance to us. This could
be something that is happening with our activist friends at Pennsylvania
Nonbelievers or on the national scene with Freedom from Religion
Foundation, American Atheists, Americans United For Separation of
Church and State, or the Center for Inquiry. We plan events, such as
the Secular Salute we held on Memorial Day weekend at the Van Zandt
V.A. Medical Center.
Our country was not founded on a belief in god, nor is it based on
majority rule. In fact, our Constitution and Bill of Rights specifically
protect the rights of the minority. The July window display at Atheist
Station will be full of information on our country’s godless Constitution.
The latest survey shows that 29 million Americans are nonbelievers.
While that is a significant number, it still is overshadowed by the
number of people who consider themselves to be religious.
We are here tonight to defend our rights:
- to freedom from religion.
- to assemble and to express our point of view
- to be treated equally before the law.
I will not engage in a debate over the existence of your god.
That would be an exercise in futility.
If your faith in your god is strong enough, you will not be threatened
by our views.
Thank you for your courtesy.
Following this, the council discussed routine matters at excruciating
length. The only item which piqued my interest was an argument among
council members about what they could do to condemn an old theatre
building which had been converted to a bed and breakfast but was now
idle. Apparently, the owner had fallen from grace with the town
fathers and they wanted him out. One member insisted that he should
have the right to inspect inside the building but was dissuaded
because there were no grounds for such intrusion.
Finally, council members were given an opportunity to question me.
The first question was “Why did you choose Gallitzin for your
location?” to which I replied, “Why not? I own a building here.”
One member, whom I shall call Black Shirt, asked the most questions.
He was greatly interested in our finances. Obviously, he did not
accept my statement that we do not ask for donations. He wanted to
know how we funded our activities. I asked, “Such as…?” And he
elaborated, “Whatever it is that you do.” I tried to explain that we
have nothing that requires funding. He then wanted to know who paid
the taxes, insurance, and utilities on the building. I stated that I
owned the building and paid those bills.
The mayor asked about our coming trip to Washington, DC, for the
GODLESS AMERICANS MARCH in November. I assured her that we all assume
responsibility for our own expenses when traveling. In rehashing the
meeting later that evening, it was our consensus that council feared
we were affiliated with and receiving financial support from a national
Black Shirt then asked if it was my intention to engage in a battle
with the Monsignor. I had no idea that he was referring to the priest
who was quoted in the article. When this was clarified for me, I
responded that the Monsignor had asked for what he was getting.
At last, the meeting adjourned. The council’s vice president – a
self-proclaimed eucharistic minister – thanked us for coming and said
we were welcome to attend any and all meetings. (This is the man who
was quoted in the Altoona Mirror as saying the building is “an
eyesore.”) He sported a heavy crucifix and a Sacred Heart medal around
his neck, probably to ward off our evil vibes!
Reporters from two local TV stations were on hand during the meeting,
and afterward I was interviewed briefly by both. There were also two
local newspaper reporters on hand. It was while talking to them that
Chris mentioned the fact that most business signs in the town were in
violation of the specified size of three square feet. (I had neglected
to tell him that I was going to forbear discussing this aspect of the
case until the zoning board had made its ruling.)
The mayor overheard this statement and interjected that we had the
size wrong, so I showed her the citation I had received. It was obvious
that she immediately grasped the flaw in the borough’s complaint
The following day, one of the TV stations requested a second interview
at ATHEIST STATION. While I was in front of the building, the zoning
officer (who is also Chief of Police) stopped by. He asked me to meet
him there the next day. When I asked why, he replied “To tie up a few
loose ends and have a look around.”
I informed him that I would be out of the county the following day and
that he could phone me Monday. I conferred with Ron, Chris, and Dave
(our ACLU lawyer) about the advisability of allowing anyone from the
Borough into the building for an inspection. I pointed out the scheme
to condemn the theatre by just such machinations. We all agreed that
no inspection would be allowed.
Victory: have we won the war
or just the first battle?
Twelve days after the council meeting, I received a FAX from the
zoning officer/police chief advising me that the building permit was
ready. When I asked for clarification, he said that all our proposed
work – including signage – was approved. He added wryly that now he
would begin to receive abusive phone calls.
Disgruntled citizens spit on the display window. They drive by and
hurl obscenities at me when I am working alone at the building. The
owners of the insurance company next door had long been violating
the property line. I sent them a “cease and desist” letter by certified
mail and posted a sign designating the parking for ATHEIST STATION ONLY.
The next day, Chris found our sign had been hurled next to our building.
Still to come on our slate of work to be done:
Survey of the property.
Installation of chain-link fencing.
Application of a billboard to the trackside of the building.
Amtrak passengers will see the name of our building and a “thought
for the day” to ponder on their trip. The wording is yet to be
determined – but it will be a hard-hitting Atheist adage.
This almost certainly is not the end of the story. Stay tuned to
American Atheist for news of new developments as they occur.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.