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Wiccan group in Bloomfield celebrates nature and a shared path

James Fenton
The Daily Times

BLOOMFIELD — A religious group in Bloomfield has an image problem, but the group's members aren't too worried about it.

Called the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage, the Wiccan coven celebrates nature and its seasons, which are considered as divine as the gods and goddesses they revere.

They create altars to Samhain, to pay respects to the dead in October; give gifts at Yule, around Dec. 21; wrap a maypole in rainbow colors to mark the beginning of summer at Beltane in May and celebrate other days that mark the changes in seasons. They believe in reincarnation and view all of life as sacred.

All 12 or so members — mostly women — are witches who practice "magick," casting spells that harness "divine energy." The coven members include teachers, archeologists and health care workers, though some are retired. Some also practice other faiths — Catholic, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist — and have spouses who have divergent beliefs.

The coven's ceremonial grounds, called a covenstead, take up the back quarter of High Priestess Janie Felix's property where she lives with her husband, Gary Felix. She says he supports her faith, but is "more of a Taoist."

The couple live just south of Bloomfield's gas plant district, on five acres that look like every other ranch home in the area until you walk past their house, beyond rows of gardens and over a ditch where you will find a maypole, a river-rock labyrinth and an altar the coven members use for rituals.

Janie Felix founded the "teaching coven" in Bloomfield around 2004 after her awakening to the Wicca faith. She was inspired by books on Wicca written by Starhawk — whose real name is Miriam Simos — that she read after moving from the East Coast to Colorado in the 1980s.

"I was exploring my spirituality after the Christian church just did not appeal to me," Felix said. "I sat there and turned the pages and said 'Yes.' Everything she said worked for me. It spoke to my feminism and my soul."

Of the witchcraft-based neopagan religions, Wicca is popular. Though it is a decentralized religion and lacks a formal book for worship, Wiccans refer to the Wiccan Rede, a Golden Rule-like moral text that includes the commonly invoked Wiccan phrase, "(And) it harm none, do what ye will." The word Rede derives from Middle English meaning "advice" or "counsel."

Felix says the Wiccan faith has many similarities with other religions, including some rituals on the Wiccan calendar that are more popular and well attended than others.

"Ours is Beltane and Samhain. Like Christmas and Easter, if people make it to any rituals, they try and make it to those two," Felix said.

After three years of practicing in solitary, coven member Jinx Bolli rejoined Felix's coven on Sept. 21 for the fall holiday called Mabon, which is a celebration of harvest time and a welcome to the winter and darkness ahead. Bolli said of the eight primary holidays, Beltane, to celebrate the start of summer, is her personal favorite.

"There's a lot of dancing and moving. We do the maypole as part of the ritual, and that can be a riot," Bolli said. "But really, all the rituals have something special. We raise a lot of energy at the rituals. There are rules to follow when you're raising energy, and we've all broken them."

During Beltane, Wiccans spiral around a maypole, an ancient fertility symbol, wrapping the pole in a rainbow of ribbons to celebrate a rich harvest. Couples might dance around or leap over bonfires, licked by flames that also represent fertility.

A five-minute drive through Bloomfield reveals more than a dozen churches of Christian denomination, but Wiccans are more likely to practice Wicca at a covenstead like the one at Felix's home. Prejudice and misunderstanding over the religion is often part of the problem Wiccans face, according to Felix, who said that public reactions to hearing the word "witch" too often conjures stereotypes of green-skinned ghouls who sacrifice babies on blood-soaked altars.

"Most people don't have a coven available in their immediate area, so solitary practice is more common," said coven member Tori Myers.

Myers, who helped establish the coven with Felix, sees the commonalities in all religions as reasons for inclusion and tolerance, not division and enmity.

"All religions have something important and meaningful in them, and there's no reason that any of them should be in conflict unless we choose them to be," said Myers, who describes herself as a "Druid-oriented pagan." "We recognize the sameness of practice, not the individual differences that are, to us, unimportant."

Mark Lewis, a coven member for five years who also attends San Juan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Farmington, sees all religious faith as linked together equally by a similar path toward enlightenment or salvation.

"Some people call it Nirvana, how about just that divinity within us all?" Lewis said. "It doesn't mean that somebody Catholic isn't on a path towards that same goal. They're just going at it a different way, and that's fine. A different approach. Or somebody who's Jewish, or somebody who is Muslim. They're all on different paths heading toward the same destination. Still, some people insist they have the only way."

A recent case over a monument erected at Bloomfield City Hall a mile from Felix's home underlines Lewis' point.

Janie Felix and Buford Coone, who has since moved away, brought a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union against the City of Bloomfield over the placement of a monument bearing the Ten Commandments at City Hall. A federal judge ruled in their favor last month, and the City of Bloomfield has appealed the ruling.

The case sparked a fair amount of vitriolic reaction, mostly online, which some coven members feel is as unfortunate as it is unnecessary.

"I don't think (the case) has affected the coven too much," Bolli said. "Separation of church and state, that's what it's about. I was personally against (the monument). Unless they wanted to extend that right to every Buddhist, every Wiccan, I felt it had no business being on state, government ground, and I still feel that way."

But coven members say they are used to fear and anger directed at Wiccans, usually exacerbated by popular culture. Bolli said she has the "Harry Potter" books to thank, in part, for her discovering Wicca, a religion she said feels the most comfortable with.

"My son in law, Jack the Jerk, who is so ultra-Christian he makes your teeth hurt, was bitching about 'Harry Potter' and said, 'Oh my God, they're going to be teaching Wicca in school.' And I thought, what the hell is he talking about?" Bolli said, "So when I got home, I started looking into it, and here I am, how many years later."

She said her granddaughter is now a practicing Wiccan who has participated in many rituals at the Bloomfield covenstead.

"Wicca itself is a more accepted term than witch," Felix said. "Witch entails the crone with the wart on her nose and the big pointy hat and stereotypical evil. ... That's what people think of. They think we're satanic, which we're not. The Hollywood version doesn't help."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.