There's no Sunday school, and meetings are regularly held at Denny's restaurants, but for members — and the federal government — Sacred Spiral is very much a church, albeit a Pagan church.
High Priestess Rosemary Szymanski disbanded her coven in favor of the Sacred Spiral Pagan Church of Arizona in 2007, having gained 501(c)3 status, which means that the federal government recognizes the group as a tax-exempt church. The whole process of becoming a church took about two years, but the wait was mostly because of paperwork, Szymanski said.
In the years since abandoning the title of coven, Szymanski, founder and president, has worked with her fellow witches to organize openly and spread knowledge about Paganism.
"Covens are much more secretive," Szymanski, a witch for 17 years, said. "So in 2007, I banned the coven and created the church."
This kind of openness is not always typical of Pagan groups, but it is a growing trend. The American Religious Identification Survey recognizes Paganism as one of the fastest growing religions, increasing from 8,000 practitioners in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001.
"Ten years ago, most witches were in the closet," Szymanski said.
Many covens remain private even today, making it difficult to estimate just how many covens or Pagan churches exist. However, online Pagan resource The Witches' Voice (witchvox.com) shows about 60 covens, groups, and organizations listed for Arizona.
Although Paganism is becoming more accepted in the mainstream, some members of Sacred Spiral are still not open about their faith for fear of repercussions in the workplace. While these members choose to stay out of media affairs, they are still active in the church.
In fact, many might find it difficult to pick a witch out of a crowd. At their most recent ritual, most church members wore "normal" clothing, with some witches also donning cloaks and pentacle necklaces.
Though some people unfamiliar with these beliefs might be wary, the members of Sacred Spiral encourage anyone curious about Paganism to come forward to the group. Sacred Spiral offers a monthly opportunity to do so with its East Valley Pagan Meet-ups, held at a Denny's restaurant (management has OK'd the group's presence) in Mesa.
"We hold these discussion groups for people to meet up and connect," said Nancy Allocca, Sacred Spiral purse warden (bookkeeper). "People show up who have been practicing for years, or it could be teenagers coming with their parents."
In addition to the Denny's meet-ups, Sacred Spiral, which has about 50 members, participates in Pagan rituals throughout the year. There are two different types of celebrations in which Pagans participate: Esbats and Sabbats.
On Sacred Spiral's website, their beliefs are described as worshipping the Goddess, "mother of all that is," and the God, who was created from the masculine part of the Goddess' being. Together, the witches believe, the God and Goddess "gave birth to all that is."
For the Esbats, the witches of Sacred Spiral celebrate the Goddess with a Public Full Moon Circle at Falcon Field Park during the full moon.
"The full moon rituals are very simple," Szymanski said. "We honor the Goddess, give thanks, and do a little spell work."
The Sabbats, on the other hand, honor the life cycle of the God. There are eight Sabbats throughout the year, which coincide with the cycles of the sun, Allocca said.
For Allocca, this cycle begins with Samhain, which is known to most as Halloween. Samhain represents the death of the God, who is reborn by the Goddess at Yule in December. For others, the cycle begins in February with Imbolc, when the God is young and growing.
The God's life cycle continues throughout the year, and the Sacred Spiral witches celebrate accordingly.
"The Sabbats are more celebratory, and they have more pomp," Szymanski said. "We have Ostara coming up in March, and we'll have a pot luck and a drumming circle."
Keeping in line with the sun's cycles, Ostara falls on the spring equinox and is the nearest Sabbat. Sacred Spiral will celebrate with a Public Ostara Circle at Falcon Field Park, on March 18.
Because Sacred Spiral does not currently have its own building, the witches' rituals generally take place at Falcon Field Park, with other activities or meetings at locations ranging from public libraries to Szymanski's house, said church elder and vice president Jennie Flohrs, Szymanski's daughter.
Flohrs, who helped establish Sacred Spiral along with Szymanski and Allocca, said the church's goal is to have a building.
"I hope to have a community center," Flohrs said, "It would also be nice to have sister churches in other areas of the valley."
Having a physical building for Sacred Spiral will be the next step for the group in the coming years after establishing themselves as a church.
Being a church, Szymanski said, has given more validation and protection to the witches.
Although Paganism's numbers are growing and more witches are out in the open, the witches of Sacred Spiral still face challenges with gaining acceptance of their beliefs.
"The biggest misconception is that we worship Satan," Szymanski said, adding that Pagans do not believe in Satan whatsoever. "For a Pagan to be a follower of Satan would be like a Christian who doesn't believe in Jesus."
The recent media phenomenon with witchcraft — like the Harry Potter series — has also led to misconceptions about Paganism, but that has been in a more positive light, church members said.
"It doesn't have much effect on people in the religion," Allocca said. "It more affects what people outside the religion think of us."
Additionally, some group members have encountered people who think that Pagans are not religious at all.
"Most Pagans are very spiritual," Allocca said. "I believe in karma, that everything I do, think, or say, I pay for now, not in an afterlife."
This belief in karma, Sacred Spiral members said, is that everything a Pagan does, positive or negative, will come back to them threefold.
"This is my belief," Allocca said. "This is the way I live."