Out-of-town brides get cool reception from Newport's Catholic churches
NEWPORT - By now, Bernice Pine can spot them.
They're the strangers - mothers with grown daughters - who show up for Mass on a Saturday, but spend the whole service glancing around, craning at the ceiling, and measuring the space with their eyes.
"They're checking it out," says Pine, office manager at St. Joseph Church, a Catholic parish in the heart of this wedding-intensive city. "They shop for churches, they really do."
They know which of the city's four Catholic churches is too small, which one is not bright enough, which has decor they don't like. It's as if marriage has ceased to be a sacrament, says Pine, and is now a photo shoot designed by Martha Stewart.
Most people, actually, don't even bother to visit the church, she says, but do their shopping by phone: "We've got the reception hall, and now we need to get a priest." "How much to rent your church?" "How long is the aisle?"
Then there are exchanges like this one:
"Is this the church where Kennedy was married?"
Concerned about the spiritually deadening effects of being used as a "facility," and wanting to leave wedding dates open for its own parishioners, St. Joseph Church no longer marries people it does not know, a policy other Catholic churches in Newport (including St. Mary Church, the one John and Jacqueline Kennedy were married in) also adhere to.
Other denominations are not so strict. At historic Touro Synagogue and Trinity Episcopal Church, for example, marriages are routinely performed for out-of-towners who pay a fee and meet certain criteria. At Touro, wedding information is one of the choices available at a touch of your touch-tone phone.
That the Catholic church takes a harder line poses a problem for brides from around the country who have set their sights on Newport, which the Chamber of Commerce, for the last four or five years, has been aggressively promoting as "the Wedding Capital of America."
The chamber says it receives 15 wedding inquiries a week via telephone and the Internet, plus an untabulated number of postcards and letters. Last year, 609 marriages were performed in Newport, nearly as many as in Warwick, which has three times the city's population.
CATHOLIC BRIDES - and especially their mothers - are a determined lot, it seems, and they don't give up without a fight.
"They'll keep you on the line as long as they can," says Pine. "They ask me, what if I did this and what if I did that?"
They offer, for instance, to make a fat donation. They offer to become members of the parish (then think better of it when they learn they must attend services for a year). They accuse the pastor of forcing them to marry outside of the Catholic Church.
The pastor, the Rev. John J. Lavin, says he receives two or three requests a week from people wanting to "use" the church for a wedding. One week, around Valentine's Day this year, he received 12 requests, a record.
By canon law, says Father Lavin, who holds a doctorate in that discipline, a pastor is primarily responsible for his own flock, but may perform marriages for non-parishioners - if the couple's own pastor gives permission.
Asked whether a priest will perform a service outdoors or at the reception site, he said the bishop would have to give permission - "and he won't give it. In this diocese, if two Catholics are being married, they have to be married in a Catholic church."
In the case of a Catholic and a Protestant, the bishop would also need to give permission for a wedding at another site.
The diocese is less strict about the venue in the case of a Catholic and a Jew, says Father Lavin, out of "a sensitivity to the Jewish spouse, that they wouldn't want to come into a Catholic church."
The insistence that Catholics marry where they worship may seem "jurisdictional" - about turf, in other words - but the rule is meant, says Father Lavin, to ensure the "care of souls" by a priest who knows his people.
"We are a people of God," he says. "People only know each other. They don't know institutions. The theology is - the people of God, that we should know each other."
ALTHOUGH St. Joseph's policy against non-parish marriages has been in place for a few years, the issue got a new airing recently in The Visitor, Rhode Island's Catholic weekly newspaper.
In a letter to the editor, Father Lavin wrote that these days, "a sacred ceremony in one's church of origin" matters less to people than marrying in a "fashionable spot."
"Like a church of convenience or a wedding chapel," he went on, "it is presumed that we are available for bookings from throughout the state, from Boston and New York and beyond.
"There is no way that we could begin to honor the requests made, nor is there any desire to do so. . . . Of course, this does cause some dismay and consternation, but it may also cause a few people to question where their priorities lie."
One very hot day this week, on the sun porch of the rectory, Bernice Pine and Father Lavin counted the ways the church has been "burned" by out-of-towners, who, like excited children out from under their parents' eye, behave in ways parishioners never would.
The attitude, they say, is: We've rented the building, we can do what we want.
"It makes you cry," says Pine.
There was the time, for instance, that a wedding party started drinking before the ceremony, and tossed the empties onto the lawn.
There was the time the bridesmaids got dressed in the basement and left behind a big mess of their makeup.
There were the florists who, before the wedding day, barged in to size up the church, oblivious to religious activities going on.
There was the photographer who positioned himself in the high pulpit, which is for sacred use only.
And the couple who wanted their German shepherd to walk in the wedding procession. "That was a little strange," says the pastor. "They didn't get too far with that one."
Even forgiving such disrespectful behavior, there are larger questions, say he and Pine, questions of community.
"When you come for a sacrament," says Pine, "don't you go to the place where your family goes to church, where your pastor baptized you or gave you confirmation, First Communion? Don't you think he'd be a little offended if you just went out and not even told him?"
That's assuming they have a pastor to offend.
Father Lavin suspects that many of the calls he gets are from "cultural Catholics," who long ago stopped going to church but nonetheless want a church wedding.
Granted, a number of young people who belong to St. Joseph and who marry there also fit that description, he says. "But you can work with them. We can sit down and I can spend time with them."
Indeed, he considers it his duty to do that.
"It sounds like I'm against marriage. I'm not. I want to see people be happy and I want to see them have a good time, but I feel I need a connection with them. I'm not a Marryin' Sam," he says, referring to the character in the L'il Abner comic strip, who performed weddings at the finish line of the Sadie Hawkins Day race.
THE VIKING HOTEL, a popular reception site in Newport, is aware that Catholic brides have trouble finding a church within the city limits, says Nancy Rusiloski, director of catering.
"That's why we pretty much renovated the chapel," she says, referring to a building next door to the hotel that it purchased from Trinity Episcopal Church and opened for weddings a year ago. It provides the happy couples and their guests with "one-stop shopping" she says. "It helps them out."
The Viking's chapel is non-denominational, and priests do not marry Catholic couples there. But the brides don't seem to mind that, says Rusiloski. "No, they really like it."
They're "relieved," she says, after "going through all that hassle."
For others, being married in a Catholic church is paramount.
Claire Wanebo of Warwick contacted every parish in Newport while planning her daughter Jackie's 1997 wedding.
"Everybody closed the door to us" - and none too gently, either, she says.
A practicing Catholic with experience planning liturgies, she says she was taken aback by the abrupt treatment she received. She remembers one priest in particular who answered her knock on the door of the rectory.
"He was eating his dinner, I guess. We got him at a bad time. He was quite gruff - 'You're not a member of the parish, we don't do non-parish weddings.' He turned his back and walked into the other room and we let ourselves out.
"I don't know what it is in Newport."
Why didn't they just have the wedding at their own church?
Because, says Wanebo, people had been invited from all over the country, and they might not be willing to come to "a little Podunk town," where there's "nothing else to do."
True, they could have had the ceremony in Warwick and the reception in Newport, but then "you'd just feel so disjointed."
The wedding was ultimately performed in Middletown, at St. Lucy Church, which is convenient enough to Beechwood mansion, the site of the reception.
Wanebo disagrees with the view that ceremonies outside one's home parish lack a sense of "community."
"I think whenever a young couple gets married, they do it in front of a community of people who know them," she says. "You have a wedding party and you have a lot of people that you've invited to the wedding, and they all come.
"You stand up in front of friends and relatives and members who it means something to, not in front of strangers, and you profess your vows to each other."
How did her pastor feel about being left out?
"Well, I didn't even ask him," confesses Wanebo, a little sheepishly. "I didn't want to inflame him. He never said anything." She did worry a bit that she was snubbing her local church, but her decision came down to "what was most convenient for everybody. . . . It's nice to have people go where they can do something if they're going to be there all weekend."
Her suggestion, if it doesn't violate any separation of church and state, is that "the church ought to get together with the leaders of the Newport tourist board and see if they can work something out."
WHEN KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, formerly of Warwick, now of Georgia, was planning her 1997 wedding, she booked the Inn at Castle Hill in Newport, but knew enough not to try getting married in a Newport church.
"We were told that the church that the Kennedys got married at, that we shouldn't even bother," she says. She'd heard that the pastor there considers it "almost like an insult" to be asked, and "doesn't even want to talk about it. I was told it's an issue that really makes him mad." (He did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Sullivan is sympathetic to the churches’ feeling overrun. "If they did cater to all of us out-of-towners and the people who don't belong to their parish, they'd have no time for the people in their parish."
Like Mrs. Wanebo and her daughter, she made her way to St. Lucy in Middletown.
THE REV. Eugene J. McKenna, pastor of St. Lucy, is just a guy who can't say no. People come to him wanting weddings, and his heart wins out over his theology.
"I do it somewhat reluctantly," he says. "I do think the marriage belongs in the home parish, where they're worshipping. But if they just don't want to do that, for whatever reason, as long as they do all their required preparation in their home parish" - the marriage classes - "I'm willing to do the ceremony here."
They come, they tell him, because they were impressed by a wedding there in the past, or because they have no other place to go, having lived out of the area for so long. "It's hard to say, 'No, you can't have it.' "
Out-of-towners pay a higher fee than parishioners for weddings, he says, though he wouldn't specify how much, because "it's not a monetary issue."
Suffice it to say, the church is not getting rich on weddings, what with "the nuisance involved, the phone calls . . ."
"Don't advertise us!" he pleaded.
FATHER LAVIN, as much as he hates labels, would call himself a liberal.
He was ordained in the 1960s, and considers himself a product of Vatican II, "the most exciting experience in my life," he says, when church traditions were interpreted in light of modern society.
Over the years, he has tried to maintain that spirit of openness.
And yet, for all that, he feels strongly that sacraments should be celebrated within one's home parish.
His distaste for out-of-parish weddings, he says, stems from his having spent 11 years on the church's Marriage Tribunal, ruling on requests for annulments. Looking back on those failed marriages, he's concluded that, in many cases, "too much emphasis was given to the ceremony and not to entering into a covenant relationship."
Is he concerned, though, that by turning people down, he's giving them more reason to feel alienated from the church?
Father Lavin says he can't worry about that. The way he sees it, he's responsible for the pastoral care of the 1,200 families in his parish, not for anyone who happens to want a wedding in the City by the Sea.
"There are other pastors out there who should be taking care of them."