The week of Christmas 2018, Anna Katherine Culotta got a call that changed everything. Her grandfather, who had spent the past few years battling prostate cancer, wasn’t getting better. The bleak prognosis, which gave him just months, meant that Anna Katherine’s original May 17 wedding would likely not include one of the most important men in her life.
“On the drive home, I called my mom and told her I didn’t want to have my wedding without my grandfather,” she recalls, also noting a health scare with her father that contributed to her decision. “My mother-in-law suggested we do a surprise wedding instead.”
With an announcement party already set for February 2, Anna Katherine and her fiancé, Sterling Gladden, decided to cancel their original wedding plans they had for later that spring and instead host a surprise wedding reception at the home of their party hosts. The result was a unique celebration that each of their nearly 300 guests will remember forever.
But before Anna Katherine threw on her wedding gown and stepped out to shock friends and family, she walked down the aisle earlier that morning in a simple white cocktail dress, with her grandfather watching from the front pew. In front of just a few family members and friends, Anna Katherine and Sterling quietly exchanged vows, becoming man and wife without the fanfare of a packed church or even a wedding party.
“Having the ceremony like that made it so much more personal,” explains Anna Katherine, whose grandfather passed away four weeks after her wedding day. “It wasn’t for show. It was just for us.”
A little over a year later, health concerns would again lead couples to major changes in their big days. COVID-19 and the preventative measures surrounding the virus took hold of the spring 2020 wedding season, demanding quarantine-friendly big days. Wedding parties were stripped of bridesmaids, groomsmen and flower girls. Priests delivered the sacrament from six feet away. Receptions took the form of car parades and backyard cookouts.
After nearly a month in quarantine, Peighton Phillips and Andrew Rothkamm stood at the altar of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on April 17—their original wedding day—and said their vows in front of a select group of family and friends, as well as a laptop, which livestreamed the entire ceremony to the guests who were no longer able to make it.
“The situation didn’t take away from how much we wanted to be together,” Peighton says of her nearly seven-year relationship with her groom. “It was actually so amazing to look around the room and just see our core family and friends and how happy they were for us. It allowed us to put the chaos aside and focus on the sanctity of marriage.”
Health scares, hurricanes and other disastrous circumstances have a way of putting things into perspective. Gone is the show of perfection that more often than not fills social media feeds. In the age of a global pandemic, weddings aren’t about how many guests, how lush the florals, or how big the cake. Instead, what’s truly important—family, love and a life together—is plunged into the spotlight. Suddenly, the sacrament is all the more authentic.
“When the order was put in place and it was clear that our wedding wasn’t going to happen as we had planned, I had a hard time accepting it at first,” admits Melissa Currier Landry, who was married April 18 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church to her fiancé, Alex. “But in the end, I realized that it was just about us two. It’s not about everyone else or everything that goes into a wedding. It’s just about the love that you share.”
“For us, it was a bright spot in the chaos of this pandemic,” adds Liz Wintz Richoux, who got married on April 18 at St. Aloysius Catholic Church to her fiancé, Ryan. “To be honest, we originally wanted something small. When we found out a wedding ceremony would still be possible, we were so excited.”
And while the COVID-19 couples are facing a more delayed reception than Anna Katherine and Sterling Gladden, each couple hopes to continue the celebration in the coming months. Turning their sights to the fall, they are planning to pick up where they left off with their original reception plans, with their dream vendors and all of their friends and family present. However, much like the experience that Anna Katherine and her family had with her grandfather on her big day, the postponed receptions of pandemic-affected newlyweds will likely carry more significance than could have ever been anticipated. The chance to be together celebrating will never again be taken for granted.
“We are so excited to tell friends, family and our future kids this crazy story,” notes Peighton Rothkamm. “If anything, the pandemic has made our celebration even more memorable.”