Going To The Chapel . . .

June 02, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The Durand-Williams wedding came off at 1100 hours. Sharp.

The first in a production line of 30 post-graduation ceremonies at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis had no singing relatives, no poetry readings, no rose petals in the aisles yesterday. Just plenty of crossed swords, military music and guests named "sir."

"My fiancee told me to get the earliest time I could," said Ensign Kyle P. Durand, 23, as he fidgeted in his dress white uniform minutes before the wedding. "I just really want to have her with me here. This is such a beautiful place."

Because midshipmen are not permitted to marry before they graduate, many flock to the chapel the day after commissioning for weddings that take place almost every hour on the hour.

The ceremonies move at a pace that would put Las Vegas to shame -- the Durand affair took 12 minutes -- but the guests are eager to join the tradition. Bridesmaids often wear gowns of Navy blue and gold, and most couples ask the organist to play the Navy Hymn while they stand at the altar.

In this chapel, they don't just marry each other. They marry the Navy.

"I just love the prestige and tradition. It's like a dream come true," said Holly Williams, 20, as she waited for Ensign Durand in a limousine outside the vaulted chapel. "It's like a fairy tale. I feel like Cinderella."

At the end of every ceremony, the bride and groom walk through an arch of swords to the bottom of the chapel steps, where an officer smacks the bride on the bottom with the weapon's dull edge and says, "Welcome to the Navy."

It is a tradition that does not unnerve Ensign Cheryl L. Pence, who will marry fellow Ensign Richard J. Harrison at the chapel after a three-year courtship.

"I've been in the military longer than he has," said Ensign Pence, who planned to wear a silk, form-fitting gown instead of her Navy uniform. "I keep telling them to get him instead."

But even without the arch of swords, these weddings show the military's influence. There is order, timing and precision.

At a wedding walk-through this week, one midshipman asked whether there were written instructions on how to get married. Another wanted to know the proper procedure for drawing his sword. And several listened soberly while the chapel staff preached punctuality.

Timing is everything

"The important thing is here that you have to be on time. You've GOT to be on time," said Catholic chaplain William D. Devine. One late wedding party could throw off the entire day's schedule.

Keeping the flurry of weddings on schedule takes some organizational skills. With couples of various faiths following in such quick order, the chapel custodians must quickly change the altar vestments depending on the ceremony.

But a certain amount of confusion is hard to avoid.

While the Durand couple posed for pictures near the gazebo where the groom proposed, the guests began arriving for the Mulville-Zambernardi wedding. Marjorie Van Gemert, a grandmother in purple chiffon, wandered outside the chapel looking for help.

"If you went in there now would you be in the other wedding?" she asked, clutching a ring bearer's pillow. "Do we have to wait?"

'Smile'

To keep the proceedings moving smoothly, a corps of wedding hostesses stage-manage the event. They say "Go" and "Smile" to the ushers and brides before the wedding party makes its trek down the 200-foot aisle in the 2,500-seat chapel.

Wedding coordinator Mary L. Torrese, who has organized 600 weddings at the academy, made sure the white sprays of carnations, anthuriums and gladioli filled the altar. And she kept bandages, tissues, needles and thread nearby just in case the brides or grooms had an emergency.

"It's just so beautiful here," she said. "I think it's very, very romantic."

Ms. Torrese remembers the groom who gave his new bride her own dog tags on the chapel steps, and the couple whose wedding cake was the color of Desert Storm fatigues.

For Ensign Durand, the military atmosphere provided unanticipated benefits. His academy training would keep him cool at the altar, he said as he waited in the chapel crypt a few minutes before the ceremony.

"As graduates, we're officers and we have to lead our men," he said. "If we start freaking out, no one's going to follow us. So I'm trying to stay calm. I just want to make sure this is the best day for her. Something she'll really remember."

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