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Atheist Station

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 to behold!

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 War II.

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.

The Catalyst

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 Friday.

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 ten days.

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 painted white.

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 following subjects:

  • 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 eye.

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 lifetimes.

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 Christian organization.

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 Atheist organization.

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 against me.

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.


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.