Love and Marriage in the Time of COVID-19

Catholic couples who went ahead with their weddings, albeit on a small scale, during the pandemic have provided a powerful witness.

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ARLINGTON, Va. — As the water drained away into the shower, Daniel Paris felt the big New Orleans Catholic wedding Allison, his bride-to-be, dreamed about was circling the drain with it. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, there would be no opportunity to bring their families together for not just the celebration of the sacrament of matrimony, but also the big party afterward.

They had plans for all their priest-friends to concelebrate, roles for the children in their families all picked out, and friends assembled into choirs, especially to sing the Ave Maria. And a massive amount of guests — everything you would want in a big, Catholic New Orleans wedding to bring families and friends together to share in the joy of the sacrament — and they hoped the witness of the event would inspire friends and family who had fallen away from the Church to return.

COVID-19 had ruined all those plans. Both Allison and Daniel had talked for days about the weighty decision they faced. And that very day, they chose to cancel their wedding plans. But then the glint of the shower drain cover caught Daniel’s eye, and he saw the words.

“Fiat” — the Latin word that began Mary’s answer to the angel when God upended all her plans.

“Let it be done unto me according to thy word.”

It was the Solemnity of the Annunciation. And Daniel and Allison felt even more confirmed they made the right choice: They would go ahead with the wedding — not as they had planned, but as God had provided during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 shutdowns across the U.S. have upended normal life and disrupted the plans of many couples to get married. On top of that, a new study from the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showed the U.S. marriage rate had fallen to 6.5 new unions per 1,000 people. That is the lowest number on record since 1867, the year the U.S. government started keeping data on marriage rates.

But the Catholic couples who have chosen to go ahead and get married during the time of COVID-19 have provided their own witness to the joy and beauty of the sacrament of matrimony, without its material trappings.

Daniel and Allison hit it off on an accidental date — a mutual friend arranged for them to all go out together but double-booked himself and so (as Providence would have it) bailed on their plans. They discovered a mutual faith, shared their own conversion stories to Christ, and realized they had a great love for holy saints and the Saints — the New Orleans Saints.

“I never thought I’d meet a Louisiana girl in Virginia,” he told the Register. “We just clicked.”

Allison said she and Daniel developed a deep friendship. Within three months, they knew they wanted to get married and spend the rest of their lives together. They got engaged on St. Thérèse’s feast day — Daniel picked the school chapel at Bishop O’Connell High School where Allison worked as a theology teacher. He had it decorated with roses, a St. Thérèse statue and a relic of the Little Flower with the ring taped on the back.

 “I looked to her as a role model to allow my will to be molded into God’s will,” Allison told the Register. And she counted on the saint’s prayers when she and Daniel realized the wedding could no longer happen in New Orleans.

“The most important thing for us was the sacrament,” Daniel said. They realized the party could come later. Plus, they had not been to Mass in weeks. Allison said a priest friend pointed out to them that “the entire world is fasting from the Eucharist right now, but you’ll get to receive.”

So reflecting on receiving the sacrament of matrimony, and Jesus in the Eucharist, sealed their decision on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. And the result, they said, was both “awesome” and “nothing we ever expected.”

They held the wedding on April 18 in Sacred Heart Church in Winchester, Virginia, a city planted in the more rural part of northern Virginia. A local family decorated the parish hall. They livestreamed the ceremony. They had the maximum of 10 people allowed by public-health guidelines. When it came time for the Ave Maria, Daniel and Allison did not have the choir they planned — but they sang it together as husband and wife in the sanctuary.

“We ran out of people,” she said, “so we figured we’ll just have to do it ourselves.”

Allison and Daniel Paris walk down the aisle as husband and wife.

 

Stress-Free, Joy-Filled Wedding

On the day Alissa and Aaron Renner married at St. Peter’s Church in Calgary, Canada, the weather was warm and the clear, mountain air made the day feel more beautiful and fresh.

The day of their wedding, May 2, had been nothing they expected, but it was better than either of them ever imagined.

“If anyone told me I’d be getting married in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, I’d have laughed,” Alissa said.

She and Aaron met online and forged a deep friendship. Both of them had been “around the block” in the world of relationships and realized that they did not want the COVID-19 pandemic to get in the way of celebrating the sacrament of matrimony.

Aaron, who is evangelical Protestant, and Alissa, who is Catholic, told the Register that whole experience made them deeply breathe in the atmosphere of the sacrament of matrimony freed from the commercial trappings that often encumber it.

Alissa and Aaron Renner smile on their wedding day.

 

And they came up with a “very Albertan” solution for the fact that the wedding dress was in the shop, the jewelers were closed, and their wedding hall was not going to be open anytime soon. Alissa bought a $50 dress, and their $10 wedding bands came from Walmart. They decorated a Ford pickup truck with the words “Just Married.” After the wedding, they held the “social distance” reception in the parking lot. They opened up the tailgate to set out cupcakes and juice boxes, with a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the spread.

Aaron said the whole day for both of them was happy, joyful and stress-free.

“It helped us focus on what was important,” he said. The beauty of the Catholic wedding liturgy affirmed the sacredness of what they were doing. And when their eyes locked as Alissa came down the aisle, they both became swept up with emotion, realizing the significance of what they were doing.

“It was certainly unexpected,” she said.

“I honestly wouldn’t change anything.”

 

Holy Saturday to Easter Joy

Of all the marriages to happen in the U.S., Greg and Mabelle Buergler were among the few Catholics to get married on Easter, the Day of the Resurrection. They had become engaged on Holy Saturday, and given how much of their relationship had been long distance, the time had felt like a long, extended Lent.

They had made plans for a big Catholic wedding on June 27 — but with social-distancing restrictions likely to be in place by then, and in no way able to accommodate the 300 people from among their families and friends, they decided to make it simple and move up the date to April 12.

“We didn’t get married for the peace of mind. We got married because we love each other,” Greg said, “and we wanted to commit to each other in a sacramental way.”

Both Mabelle and Greg were connected in part by the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT). Greg is a lay member, and Mabelle is a friend of the community. While they had known of each other, it was actually the funeral of SOLT co-founder Father John McHugh that brought them together.

“We went on our first real date and started seeing each other,” Mabelle told the Register. “It’s hard to find a good Catholic man, and just from the beginning, I knew he was different.”

They started a long-distance relationship, using the power of the internet to keep connected and build a solid foundation of friendship despite the separation.

“We had to focus on our communication, particularly our vocal communication, to make it work,” Greg said.

So they married in an adobe chapel dedicated to the Blessed Mother in Mora, New Mexico. The Buerglers said Mora is a bit like one of the picturesque mountain towns you find in Hallmark movies.

As Mabelle entered the church, snow started to fall on that sunny day. Mabelle’s father, a deacon, officiated the wedding and gave his daughter away with the words, “I give you my most precious gift.”

Afterward, they prayed at the graves of SOLT’s founder and co-founder.

“We knew that they had something to do with” our relationship, Greg said.

“It’s been very special to be together every day,” Mabelle added.

 

Jerusalem on High

Having falling in love in Jerusalem, Catie and Michael Kopf little expected they would be getting married in the Holy City. Yet they together had walked up Mount Zion to the Dormition Abbey to make their vows as husband and wife on April 4, the eve of Palm Sunday — one of the quietest in Jerusalem’s history. The streets are usually crammed full of pilgrims and worshippers, but on this day under lockdown, Jerusalem was like a “ghost town” offering its beautiful panorama to the happy pair.

Catie held in her hands a bouquet of Jerusalem wildflowers — and Michael held in his hand a palm branch. She wore a white sundress. He wore his best clothes. She is an American with a large family back home. He is Austrian from a small family that lived in a small town. They met in Jerusalem studying ancient Greek — and both were faced with the prospect that COVID-19 might separate them indefinitely, if they first returned to their home countries before the wedding as planned.

They had originally planned to get married on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption — her mother’s birthday — and, instead, with the encouragement of Catie’s family, they were getting married at the Dormition Abbey — the place of the Assumption — on his mother’s birthday, April 4.

Both of them carefully considered the choice they were making. Catie knew she was sacrificing the big wedding of her dreams in McLean, Virginia. And the question came to her: “Would you still marry Michael if you had to lose everything else? … Would you still want this?”

But the answer was clear. “Yes,” she said. “There was no question.”

Michael likewise thought carefully. He, too, was resolved.

“I couldn’t find anything in me that made me doubt or hesitate,” he said. “I wanted to make my promise.”

Israel had imposed severe restrictions on movement and congregating across the country, so Catie and Michael kept the wedding limited to the necessary participants. The wedding party had just the priest, the maid of honor and best man as the witnesses, and the bride and groom.

They also had with them the florist, the photographer and his wife (who operated the livestream so the rest of their families could watch) and the cantor.

 Catie and Michael Kopf married in Jerusalem

“It was freeing, in a way,” Michael said. “It was really just about the sacrament.”

Catie said she realized in the church where the Virgin Mary had been assumed into glory with Jesus Christ that even though the wedding turned out not how she had planned, “everything is just as I wanted it.”

As Catie and Michael stepped forth from the church, the Angelus bells began to ring.

As Catie put it, “Somehow, in some way, everything had been fulfilled.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.