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Gallitzin graced by Atheist Station

Wary churchgoers seem to be resigned to edgy coexistence

Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GALLITZIN, Pa. --To date, there's been but one open tangle between the church-going people in this Cambria County town and the coterie of atheists prominently setting up shop here.

Lori Polansky at the Atheist Station -- "What do we do? Well, we don't sacrifice goats in the basement" (V.W.H.C. Campbell, Post-Gazette)

That would be the incident over at the former barbershop that the atheists are turning into their local meeting house.

"Somebody pasted a 'God bless America' bumper sticker on the place," local police Chief Gerald Hagen said. "That's been about it."

So much for tempests of religious indignation or a modern-day crusade to drive out infidels.

But Gallitzin -- population 1,700; probably 95 percent of them church folk, borough council President Nancy Buck figures -- has been a trifle rattled in the six weeks since a smallish coalition of atheists decided to plant their regional headquarters in a high visibility spot here.

"It doesn't seem to be the image Gallitzin wants to project," said Irene Szynal, borough secretary.

When renovations are done, headquarters for the atheists will be a place along the mainline railroad tracks, the shop where Nona Davis barbered for about two decades before hanging up her clippers five years ago and leaving the building idle.

Painted brown, the two-story, 30- by-30-foot box blended into this blue-collar town's streetscape. A couple of months ago, though, the place got a new coat of paint -- a jarring, red-pink that would make Martha Stewart weep harder than two to four years in the Big House.

Then, on the front of the building, came 3-foot-high white letters: Atheist Station.

"It popped out of nowhere," local resident Joan Latoche said. "People were asking, 'What is that?' "

The answer might have been another barbershop or a pet grooming center, had would-be buyers summoned up financing, said Davis' daughter, Lora Polansky of nearby Altoona.

When they didn't, Polansky -- a traveling notary by day, an atheist activist the rest of the time -- decided to reincarnate the property as a meeting place for the six to eight local atheists who usually gather monthly at her house for a little heathen discourse.

"What do we do? Well, we don't sacrifice goats in the basement," said Polansky, who officially is the Western Pennsylvania regional director for the American Atheists. "There's discussion. Right now, the big topic is using God in the Pledge of Allegiance and those damn stupid school vouchers."

By Polansky's reckoning, getting their own headquarters meant, among other things, not having to tidy up her own house for the infidels' monthly tete-a-tete.

And getting a headquarters done in flamboyant red was like having a billboard near the center of town.

"Churches ad nauseam in central Pennsylvania but only one haven for free thinkers," says a placard in the front window.

This month, the theme of displays in her front window is separation of church and state. Last month -- in response, Polansky said, to criticism from the pastor of St. Demetrius Catholic Church -- she tried tweaking the church's nose over such topics as contraception and pedophilia.

"They said it was a place for free thinkers, people with open minds," said St. Demetrius' pastor Monsignor Bernard Przybocki, whose parish numbers more than 1,000 people. "And I said the problem with an open mind is that sometimes, it can be like a garbage can -- you can put anything into it."

"If he keeps it up," Polansky said, "he's going to get some more. ... As long as there's detente, that's fine."

While all sides seem to have settled into coexistence, the episode has been jangling to at least some of unsuspecting Gallitzin.

"I've gotten phone calls from people. 'What are you going to do about this?' Well, what can you do?" said Buck, the council president. "They have a right to believe in or not believe in whatever they want. We're lucky in this country that we have that choice."

Still, Gallitzin United Methodist Church, across the tracks from the Atheist Station, drew up its own battle plan.

"We had a prayer request in the bulletin that they be saved," said the Rev. Bonnie Nagle, pastor of the 90-member congregation.

In the meantime, Nagle said, her congregation was wondering, "Why Gallitzin?"

"How could you pick Gallitzin? This is a Catholic town. ... There aren't enough people to sustain these atheists here," Przybocki said. "They'll have to get them from somewhere else."

Polansky's science for location selection gets no grander than this: Gallitzin is where her mother's building is -- dreadfully bad happenstance for people offended by the Atheist Station.

For starters, critics say, the Atheist Station is an affront to this town named for Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, the Russian prince-turned-priest, the first person to receive all the orders of priesthood in the newborn United States, the missionary who cemented Catholicism in this stretch of the Alleghenies two centuries ago.

And the piece of Gallitzin that Polansky picked is about 200 yards down tracks from the local showpiece rail park and museum. There, Gallitzin draws about 10,000 visitors a year to see where, a century and a half ago, workers bored 3,612 feet through the Allegheny Front to make the tunnel that allowed the Pennsylvania Railroad to spill westward.

Rail buffs set up here to watch the smorgasbord of 60 to 70 freight trains that daily pour through the tunnel and a companion portal across town. And when they glance westward, there's the red building.

"They see that name Atheist Station, and they think the word 'station' somehow connects it to the railroad," said Latoche, a longtime Glenshaw resident who returned to her native Gallitzin a few years back and now volunteers in the museum.

Rail aficionado Phillip Faudi, late of the Maine Central Railroad, made his way to these parts in 1966 to see the Horseshoe Curve, the engineering wizardry that helped the mainline climb the mountains six miles east of here.

He and his wife returned every year since to vacation amid the rail lines. Finally, last year, they retired here from Turner, Maine, simply to bask among the trains and the legacy of the legendary PRR while Faudi volunteers four days a week at the Gallitzin rail park.

He seems to love all he surveys -- save for the Atheist Station.

"It's brazen," he said as he stood on the platform of a PRR caboose parked in the rail park. "There's been a change in society, and that's most unfortunate, the brazenness."

By Polansky's reckoning, though, brazen is good.

This is a woman who traces her lineage back six generations to Revolutionary War Capt. Michael McGuire, for whose local settlement of Catholics the Rev. Gallitzin became parish priest. Polansky, 53, once was a Catholic herself, a secretary at the former seminary at nearby Loretto.

Her husband Joe Polansky, who died 2 1/2 years ago, once trained to be a monk. Later, as he lost his vision to diabetes, he pursued a doctorate in theology.

But a few decades back, their faith collapsed -- hers, she says, in part because of what she terms "uncharitable ... loutish behavior" she saw while working at the seminary. And Lora Polansky emerged as a gadfly.

Three years ago, amid lobbying to have the Ten Commandments posted in Altoona Area School District buildings, Polansky countered with her own demand that tenets of atheism be displayed, too.

In the end, school directors decided, nobody would post anything.

And, in a little post-Sept. 11 fervor, when the Altoona-area transit authority programmed signs on its buses to flash, "God bless America," Polansky wrote the authority, insisting that was no way for a government-funded agency to behave.

"The signs stopped," she said.

Back in Gallitzin, if the Atheist Station seems to be a rather in-your-face introduction to the neighborhood, Polansky at least suggested that things won't get much more confrontational than that, Buck said.

At an amicable session with borough council last month, "She said they're not going to do marches or things like that."

That's fine by Francis Maruska, an easygoing retiree in what he deems an easygoing town that, come whatever, will adjust to the Atheist Station.

"Probably if you leave 'em alone, they go away," Maruska said as he stood on a platform at the rail park caboose, leaning his 6-foot-2 frame against the rail. "Besides, I don't have enough time to worry about that woman's soul. I have enough trouble worrying about mine."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 16, 2002) A story Sunday about the opening of a gathering place for atheists in Gallitzin, Cambria County, said Joe Polansky, the late husband of the woman opening the center, "trained to be a monk." Polansky was a Benedictine monk for five years, his wife Lora Polansky said.

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