My wonderful, unusual Catholic wedding

Guests thought we were jinxing our marriage. The florist looked at me like I was crazy. But my husband and I stuck to our plan… and our faith

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By Barb Conley Waldmiller

There’s an old saying that says if you want to hear God laugh, make a plan. As a young girl I had two plans: I would never marry someone named Ken (my name is Barb), and I was not going to get married in the month of June (too cliché for me). Well, my husband’s name is Ken Waldmiller and we were married on June 23.

Ken and I met in church, at a Mass in which he was the lector and I was a cantor. We soon discovered we had many interests in common, and that the Church — and volunteering for it — played a large part in each of our lives. We quickly realized we worked well together on all kinds of projects — cooking, helping with the folk group, teaching religious education. Our gifts complemented each other’s so well that we became known as the “buy-one-get-one-free” team.

We decided to marry in Syracuse, at the parish my mother and I had gone to from the time I was 9. The first book we picked up was Celebrating Marriage by Paul Covino, which I had used before as a resource to help other couples prepare for their weddings. Ken and I sat down one evening with the book and a glass of wine. It was an easy read and answered a ton of questions. When Ken and I realized that many things people consider “vital” in the wedding liturgy are not integral to today’s celebration, it was easy to concentrate on what would make our celebration special.

One of the things we did to prepare was to take a seven-week marriage preparation class at our parish, which covered everything from finances to how to “fight” fairly. During the class we heard a great story that reminded us not to take anything for granted during our preparations, and not to do something just because “it’s always done that way.” Here’s the story: A bride knows that her husband loves the way his mother makes the roast every week. Never having made a roast before, the bride asks for the recipe.

“It’s really quite simple,” says her mother-in-law. “You season the roast, cut each end off, and cook it until the thermometer says it’s done.”

“Why do you cut the ends off the roast?” the bride asks.

“That’s the way it’s always been done,” her mother-in-law replies. “It’s the way my mother-in-law taught me.” A few days later, the bride calls her husband’s grandmother and asks about the recipe. In a very quiet voice, the grandmother replies, “I cut the ends off the roast because the roast was too big, the pan was too small, and money was too tight to buy a new pan.”

That story, and the first chapter in Celebrating Marriage on the history of wedding traditions, taught us to always ask: Where does this custom come from, and is it relevant to our wedding? Asking why something is done in a particular way, rather than presuming it’s correct, has served us well during our married life.

One unconventional aspect of our wedding was the wedding party. Ken and I were perfectly fine having one witness each, and instead of looking for best friends as “best man” and “maid of honor,” we chose the two people who could literally “witness” to our readiness to become husband and wife. This was a pretty radical concept — at the ceremony, our witnesses would actually say whether they thought we were ready to marry! (This was based on the RCIA sponsor model.) As it turned out, the one person I felt could best speak on my behalf was a man, and the person Ken felt could speak best for him was a woman. Steve and Mary spoke briefly and eloquently just after the homily and before the exchange of vows.

Another unconventional aspect of our wedding was that we saw our guests before the ceremony. Ken and I wanted our guests to feel welcome from the moment they walked into the church. We wanted them to know how much we appreciated the sacrifices they had made to join us for this occasion. If we are being invited to a banquet (the Body and Blood of Christ) at the Table of the Lord, I thought, and if the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, then isn’t the liturgical celebration of our marriage much like hosting a large, formal (very special) dinner party? And when you host a dinner party, you greet your guests at the front door, right? So Ken and I decided to greet our guests at the front door of the church on our wedding day.

But what about the “wow” moment — the first time the groom sees the bride? I’ve always thought that this is a rather private moment, yet most people share it with hundreds of people in the middle of a church. After a few days, I had an inspiration. Ken could pick me up at my mother’s house and we could ride to the church together. I would wait for Ken upstairs in the room that had been mine since I was 9. The next time I came back into this room, I would be a married woman!

On the day of my wedding, I was all dressed and ready and waiting in this upstairs room. When my mother saw Ken coming to the door, everyone else went downstairs, and my mother told Ken I was waiting for him. When he opened the door to my room, it really was a magical moment, and special, and private. It was perfect.

The look on our guests’ faces as they came in the front doors of the church was great. Some were confused, all were thrilled, and some needed to be reassured that we hadn’t jinxed our marriage before we even got married! We had no time to be nervous, and every single one of our guests felt welcomed. For a couple of years after the wedding, people would come up and tell us (or our parents) how they enjoyed the conversations Ken and I had with them at the reception, but I know for a fact we never got to their table! That feeling of welcome came from the very simple gesture of greeting them at the front door of the church.

Not everyone agreed with our sometimes unorthodox choices. When my mother and I picked out the floral arrangements, the florist said I would “naturally” want an aisle runner. When I told her I didn’t, she looked at me like I was crazy and tried convincing my mother that my dress would be “in danger of becoming soiled.” I thanked the woman but pointed out that not only did the church not have dirt floors, it had tiled floors with carpeting, and that I was not willing to take the risk of someone slipping on the plastic runner.

Ken and I weren’t always in complete agreement either. There was one thing Ken really wanted that I was opposed to: the unity candle. Ken said that the light represented the light of Christ, and the candle, the union of the two families. My point was that the unity candle was a recent addition to weddings; the wedding liturgy was rich enough without adding more symbols to it. Celebrating Marriage had a great idea that we adopted: lighting the candles at the reception. I ordered some custom-made pillar candles, which we gave as gifts to our parents, witnesses, and those involved in helping us with the wedding liturgy. On the head table at the reception, just like at a dinner party, we had tapers matching the larger candle and the pillar (unity) candle arranged with the flowers to make a centerpiece. As the families were announced, my mother and Ken’s mother lit the tapers, and then Ken and I lit the pillar candle from the tapers. It looked beautiful.

By this time, one might ask how our parents felt about this unconventional wedding. I can thankfully say that Ken and I were blessed to have parents who trusted us and raised only the occasional red flag. The one and only time my mother spoke with her “because I said so” voice was when she said, “I am walking you down the aisle.” My father died when I was 9, and I was not comfortable with the idea of being “given away,” so the next logical solution was that Ken and I would walk each other down the aisle. But my mother had been my mother, father, best friend, chief cook, guardian, and defender since I was 9, so I agreed to her request. Ken’s parents were very pleased to walk him, so this was another compromise that turned out really well. The procession looked like Sunday liturgy, except there were the bride and groom and their parents at the end of it.

Was everything perfect for our wedding? No. Our outdoor rehearsal dinner was rained on, the bakery forgot the eggs in our wedding cake, and, during the wedding ceremony, sirens blared from the nearby fire station. The noise temporarily stopped, only to resume at the singing of the “Lamb of God.” Luckily, by this time we were all singing together with the goal of out-singing the sirens. It was a glorious sound. Then and there, I knew that even though Ken and I had planned this liturgy down to the last detail, the words of the psalm we had sung in between our first and second reading a few minutes before were ringing true: “Our lives are in your hands, O Lord, our lives are in your hands.”*  CD

Barb Conley Waldmiller

Barb Conley Waldmiller is a full-time mom to Adam, 12, and Peter, 10, and lives with her husband Ken in northern Virginia. She works part-time at the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions in Washington, D.C., and teaches a preschool music class in Bethesda, Maryland.

* This lyric comes from the song “You are All We Have,” written by Francis Patrick O’Brien (GIA Publications, 1991).