When Royce Brunson and Alyssa Choinski got engaged, Brunson wasn’t the only one who asked “Will you marry me?”
Choinski also popped the question — to her grandmother.
Choinski, 28, asked Barbara Bevilacqua, 81, of East Setauket if she would be ordained as a minister so she could perform the Farmingdale couple’s wedding ceremony at Oheka Castle on July 4, 2019. “She couldn’t say ‘Yes’ fast enough. She was overjoyed,” said Choinski, a middle school social studies teacher.
“But then I sat down and thought about it, and then I wasn’t so sure,” Bevilacqua said. What would she have to do to be ordained? Would she be confident enough to speak in front of the wedding guests? Could she control her emotions to get the words out without happy tears?
“It never entered my mind that I would be doing something like that. Then the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I’m excited now,” she said.
A skim of published wedding announcements and wedding data shows more and more couples are embracing the idea of asking friends or family members to do the honor of marrying them. Sometimes it’s because the couple aren’t religious and would prefer a more secular celebration. Sometimes it’s prompted by an interfaith marriage. It might be because a gay couple can’t find a mainstream minister who will marry them. Many couples say it’s because they want to customize their ceremony.
In its first year of existence in 2010, for instance, the Seattle-based American Marriage Ministries ordained 485 ministers from New York; in 2017, that number was 5,543, said executive director Lewis King.
Becoming ordained is less intimidating than it sounds. “I thought you maybe had to take a couple of classes,” Choinski said. But you just visit the website of American Marriage Ministries, the Universal Life Church or other such nonprofit organizations and fill out a form.
And congratulations, you can officiate at weddings.
Took off with millennials
To be married in New York State, a couple applies for a marriage license from their local government, then their union must be witnessed by an authorized public official or member of the clergy who signs the license, according to the state Department of Health.
“The determination of who a minister is has never been put into law or codified. To do so would be a violation of the freedom of religion and the Constitution,” said George Freeman, presiding chaplain for the Universal Life Church Monastery. Many ordained-online ministers don’t have to have religious training, attend a seminary, lead a brick-and-mortar congregation or have a background in theology.
“Our goal is to lower the barrier to marriage because we think it’s such an important part of society,” King said.
Being ordained is free, and the organizations support themselves by selling optional packages that include, for instance, official minister certificates, guides to how to conduct a wedding, ministerial garments and other accessories.
“It’s really taken off in the last couple of years. Especially with millennials not associated with any religious organization who are looking for ways to personalize their wedding ceremony,” King said.
According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. And, according to The Knot’s “2017 Real Weddings Study,” 47 percent of couples had a family member or friend officiate their wedding, up from 42 percent in 2016. Although the study did not delve into whether the friends and family members became ordained online, it noted a steady increase since 2010, when only 31 percent of couples incorporated a family member or friend officiant.
The personal touch
Christine and Alex Hernandez of Bohemia, a 33-year-old yoga teacher and a 32-year-old accountant, respectively, asked her brother, Matthew Chiarelli, to officiate at their wedding at their mother’s house on the water in West Islip in September 2017 for just that reason — desire for the personal touch.
“Even if you’ve gone to the same church your whole life, your priest isn’t going to know you as well as your brother knows you,” Hernandez said. And the clergy member may only know half of the couple well. An officiant who is a relative or longtime friend can add shared mutual memories into the timeline of the ceremony — Chiarelli, for instance, joked about Christine and Alex’s shared love of TV’s “The Office.”
“He put a lot of thought into it. I didn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it was,” Hernandez said.
There is pressure for the officiant to pull things off with panache, said Chiarelli, 29, a musician who lives in Los Angeles and became ordained through American Marriage Ministries. “It definitely was a couple of stressful days when I was trying to write it, because obviously this was a big day for my sister. It ended up being a lot of fun.”
Courtney Rosario, 28, of Levittown, said she was “dumbfounded” when Diane and Peter Totino of Glen Cove not only asked her to be a bridesmaid but added “the curveball” or asking her to officiate at their December 2017 wedding ceremony at Fox Hollow in Woodbury. The couple had met Rosario at the City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill in Westbury when all three worked there.
“She was there since me and my wife first started dating,” Totino said. “She saw how our relationship progressed.”
‘Front and center’
The officiant is typically responsible for the structure of the ceremony, and the couple can leave it entirely in their hands or participate in the outline.
Rosario rehearsed her role over and over with her boyfriend. “He had it memorized by the end because I had said it so many times,” she joked of her boyfriend. “As soon as the first sentence came out, I was good. I absolutely would do it again. It’s something I won’t ever forget.”
Antha Flood, 41, of Bayville, and her now husband, Joe Vinarski, asked his stepbrother, Michael Barish, to marry them in 2015. Since then, Flood herself has become ordained by the Universal Life Church and has officiated at two weddings of friends. Her most recent ceremony was for Allison Tresselt, 27, who studied hospitality, and Brian Yarosh, 37, a commercial fisherman, of Stratford, Connecticut, who wed at View in Oakdale on Oct. 27.
Flood had been Tresselt’s photography teacher at Deer Park High School. “We stayed friends after I graduated,” Tresselt said. “She actually introduced me and Brian.”
Flood gets her hair and makeup professionally done each time she officiates for a wedding, and she coordinates her outfit with the couple. “I match it to whatever they want, because I’m front and center in all their pictures,” she said.
She also creates a leather-bound book with the person’s paperwork and her minister certificate. “I buy them online so they have a keepsake,” she said. Her favorite part of the ceremony? When she says, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Some officiants, like Flood, are so honored to do the honors that they have launched their own side business. She’s had business cards made up for times when she plans to charge strangers for her services.
Caveats for the big day
Some people have questioned whether New York State has actually meant to give online ministers the power to witness weddings.
The exact wording by the state Department of Health reads that one of the people who has the right to officiate a marriage is “a member of the clergy or minister who has been officially ordained and granted authority to perform marriage ceremonies from a governing church body in accordance with the rules and regulations of the church body.” This would appear to include online ministers.
But in a May 2018 article in Nassau Lawyer, the Nassau County Bar Association journal, lawyers Jessica Sola and Dana Finkelstein warned that until laws are modified such marriages could potentially be declared void by a court, if half of the couple wishing to divorce contests the validity of the union based on the officiant’s qualifications. That could be “disastrous” to the spouse seeking alimony and other benefits, they wrote in the article with the headline, “Wait, We’re Not Married?!”
Divorce lawyer Bryan Salamone, who owns a Melville law firm specializing in divorce, said he’s handled thousands of separations over more than two decades and hasn’t seen this happen. If a couple is concerned, he said, they should also be married by a justice of the peace or other authorized official — then have their ordained friend or family member re-enact the public ceremony “when the groom kisses the bride.”
Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island says he doesn’t consider officiants who are ordained online as actual members of the clergy, but rather people who are granted permission to act on behalf of the state. That doesn’t upset him, he said.
What concerns him, however, is what may be lost in this modernized process. Provenzano, who has been officiating at weddings for 38 years, won’t perform a ceremony without counseling the couple first. “I think it’s invaluable to meet with somebody who has training about this commitment that’s going to be made. I won’t do a wedding unless I meet with the couple at least four times.”
When Robert Vitelli, 44, and David Kilmnick, 51, married in 2012 in Sayville, they weren’t worried about such caveats. They wanted someone whom they looked up to, to perform their ceremony, and they asked the late Robert Hawkins, Kilmnick said.
“He was one of my professors at Stony Brook University and became the first board chairman of the LGBT Network,” Kilmnick said. Kilmnick and Vitelli both work for the LGBT Network, which advocates for the gay community on Long Island.
Fear of bloopers
Brunson and Choinski plan to work hand-in-hand with Bevilacqua to create a lighthearted, fun ceremony for their upcoming Big Day. Brunson, a health care businessman, said he’s ecstatic to have what will soon be “our” grandmother running the show. “When you talk to Nanny about it, she just lights up,” Brunson said.
“It’s going to be fun working with them, picking out readings,” Bevilacqua said. “If you’re taking the religious part out, you have to fill it with something else, or you’re going to have a five-minute ceremony.”
Bevilacqua has been poring through advice online from other ministers who suggest putting the speech into large print, practicing it repeatedly so you aren’t just reading, and wearing something that identifies you as the officiant — Bevilacqua plans to don a stole.
“One woman wrote that she forgot to ask everybody to sit down until halfway through the ceremony,” Bevilacqua said. “My greatest fear is I’ll forget to do something important. Like maybe the vows, and then they won’t be married.”
Choinski isn’t worried about bloopers, she just wants her maternal grandmother up there with her. “Nanny” was there at her Sweet 16 and at her high school and college graduations.
“She was there through every single life milestone,” Choinski said. “This is the grand finale of milestones, as big as it gets.”