For $80, I thee wed

Courthouse chapel draws `kaleidoscope' of couples for low-cost, no-hassle vows

Maryland Journal

September 04, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

It took a heartbreak, a decade and the persuasion of relatives about 3,000 miles from home to get Amanda Burrows and Leslie Johnson to the Annapolis courthouse.

On a brilliant Thursday at noon, the bride and groom stood in the chapel flanked by their two young sons, Jason and Nathan.

The family had flown in from the Lake District in northern England to visit relatives in Maryland, who had persuaded them to finally take the leap 10 years after their spouses ran off with each other.

"Nobody at home knows we're doing this," Burrows said, holding a bouquet. Even after presiding over 5,000 civil weddings since 1994, Robert P. Duckworth, clerk of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court, said the couple's story, seemingly right out of a Bronte novel, was a new one.

Five days a week, it's first come, first served for weddings at the historic courthouse chapel on Church Circle. Business is brisk: about 1,000 a year. The parade of couples comes from all walks of life: soldiers, immigrants, vacationers, blue-collar workers. Others are members of different religions seeking a secular ceremony, seniors renewing their vows, young couples expecting a child. Many, like Johnson and Burrows, are modestly celebrating a second marriage.

Duckworth, who, along with six other officials in the clerk's office, is authorized to perform county weddings, said he never tires of the "kaleidoscope of society" he sees.

"Once a pregnant bride broke her water and had to be rushed to the hospital. Another time, everyone was wearing leather motorcycle outfits," Duckworth said. "But to see people that have discovered or stumbled on each other, that serendipity is powerful to me."

In an era of lavish white weddings, which cost on average of $27,000, a civil ceremony is an inexpensive alternative for about a quarter of the population. The total cost, including a license, comes to $80.

"That's a piece of cake," Duckworth said.

The clerk, a Republican running for re-election, is a reserved man who has acquired the air of an interfaith vicar over the years. Married to his college sweetheart, he says he has developed a sixth sense of which couples will last till death do them part. Those arguing on the courthouse steps on the way in are not a good bet.

"You can tell the feeling, the commitment between them," Duckworth said after marrying Burrows and Johnson.

Maritza Alvazer and Julio Cesar Arroyo Sosa, 41-year-old residents of Maryland City, also made a favorable impression on Duckworth.

Alvazer, a lawyer in her native Ecuador, and Sosa, a welder and mechanic who emigrated from El Salvador, were both living in the area but never met even as they fell halfway in love chatting on the Internet.

"We didn't try hard to make it happen," Sosa said. "We spent a lot of time talking about how our life was and asking questions. All that brought us together."

She left the country, but when she returned to the U.S., he met her plane at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Then they knew.

On the day they were married, Sosa worked a 6 a.m. shift that ended at 1 p.m. - just in time to be at the courthouse by 2.

No honeymoon was planned - Sosa said he'd be back on the job the next day. Alvazer, who works at a drugstore because of her limited English, said they hope to have children. It is the first marriage for both.

They were so engrossed in their wedding ceremony that they didn't seem to hear the exclamations of a niece, a toddler who enjoyed her voice echoing off the high-ceilinged chapel's walls.

"Hola, nina," Duckworth said. Over the years, he's become proficient in officiating in Spanish, thanks to the rising number of Spanish speakers in the region.

Coming from Glen Burnie for their courthouse wedding the next day were Stacey Marks, 28, and Tyler Brown, 21. The reception would follow at the Reynolds Tavern next door.

"Two days ago, we said, `Let's just do it," Stacey Marks Brown said at the courthouse door as 20 family members and friends waited to shower her. The couple's 16-month-old son, Joseph, helped to keep their relationship on track, they said.

At the couple's request, Duckworth made a brief reference to God during the ceremony. In his opinion, this was a sign that the couple was a keeper, too.

"I'm so glad," said Stacey Marks Brown. "We're right with the Lord now." Now that they are moving to North Carolina for his new job - he is a computer designer - the couple decided it was time to get married. Since they are saving money for a house, the bride said, it made sense not to splurge on a fancy wedding.

Or, as Amanda Burrows put it plainly, she didn't want the "fuss and blather of last time."

Across the Atlantic, Burrows is a school office worker and Johnson is an insurance manager.

The bride, 41, said she overcame her reluctance to get remarried and wore a handmade ankle-length ivory dress with white satin princess shoes.

The second time around, the 49-year-old groom observed, gives a better chance for success and happiness as husband and wife.

Said Johnson with a smile: "You know what you've let yourself in for."

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