Alma mater of the bride

Alma mater of the bride McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 30, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 17
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > May 30, 2002 > Alma mater of the bride

Alma mater of the bride

At this time of year McGill sees change aplenty. Students graduate, ending an important phase of their life. Others start another important phase of life with a wedding. The University is associated with books, not wedding banns, but all the trappings for a marriage ceremony can be found on campus.


Deborah McSorley, the receptionist in the Faculty of Religious Studies, books the chapel for weddings, schedules rehearsals, alerts the concierge to open the building off-hours and generally dispenses advice. The month of May saw five weddings. June and July are slow, but ceremonies take off in August ("Three in one day!" she says) and the fall.

David Farkas, whose cousin studies here, is booking the chapel for June 2003. "We're looking forward to the whole party, but it's more of a planning headache right now," he says. "Now we're just trying to find a minister." McSorley obliges him with a handy list of chaplains, and the number of the chapel organist, Scott Bradford.

Usually people get in touch with McSorley about six to eight months before the event, then step up contact in the final month. "I like doing weddings," she says. "I get to know the people really well." Most of the time, the couples are past graduates who love the "beautiful, peaceful setting" and are attracted by the interdenominational character of the chapel.

McSorley checks the birth certificates or passports, prepares the government form and posts the banns with 21 days to spare. After the wedding she sends the official document to the government and keeps a copy in her office.

"We've got information back to 1931," she says, showing off the earliest "Divinity Hall" book (Birks' old name). Its pages are filled with official documents, signed by the bride and groom, their witnesses and the presiding officiant. Recently, she says, a woman dropped by to find her grandparents' form and copy it for their 50th wedding anniversary.

This is organist Scott Bradford's 14th year at McGill. He played at 15 weddings last year, but says, "Ten years ago it was four times that." He suspects there's a societal trend towards not marrying, and those that do may not have grown up with the church and so missed out on organ appreciation. Stretched-for-cash students may use taped music, which can end abruptly. But organists "can tailor-make the length of music, covering until the bride arrives.

"Ceremony is theatre," Bradford says. "Music helps underline the emotion of a particular moment." About a quarter of the couples ask for "Here comes the bride" and "those who want it are not easily swayed." He likes to give options. "A lot of brides really like 'St. Anthony Chorale' by Haydn," which is "gentle and unassuming."

Bradford says, "I want the entry music to really make a statement." One bride suggested the promenade from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," with great success. For the ceremony's end, many choose Mendelssohn's "Wedding March." Bradford likes a joyous romp of an organ finale by Louis Vierne. "It makes a real splash at the end."

Bradford loves to stretch his talents with unique requests. One music student who got married asked for Elsa's march from Lohengrin, music she learned on the flute for band. "It meant something for her -- she loved it so much."

There are a few rules for chapel use, McSorley says. People can't take anything down, but some choose to cover the crucifix. One problem is that people often like to tack, nail or tape things up. One couple used two-way tape to fasten a rug down the aisle. When it was pulled up, it left two strips right down to the front. "I had to charge damage fees," she says. "I warn people now."

McGill Chaplaincy director Reverend Gwenda Wells does about 12 to 16 weddings a year. "It has to be a Christian wedding, not generic, but if it's interfaith, I'll be broad and open to it." Her texts are mostly set, but she'll allow substitutions. For instance, she performs bilingual weddings, and ones that blend traditions (one wedding had a bagpiper pipe in the bride up to the Jewish chupah, or canopy).

The challenge is to weave the legal contract with the spiritual blessing, she says. Besides letting it be the couple's event, you have to control the details. Wells adds, "You have to be a bit of a control freak and laissez-faire."

Wells is sometimes asked to marry divorced Roman Catholics. "I'm very careful to explain to them that they will be put out of communion. I say, 'You need to tell me how this marriage is sacrament.'" She tells them to go away, think about it, and come back and say how their wedding still provides for them to be in the grace of God.

Chapel concierge Andre LaFleur has been privy to all kinds of events in his 16 years at McGill. Six in one day is the most he's done, and LaFleur cites one Hindu wedding in particular as making for a long and interesting day. There were 250 guests, and each walked barefoot around a fire in the front lobby, he says. "We needed a special permit and plenty of fire extinguishers on hand."

Other minor surprises included a wedding with a dog, cat and rabbit as witnesses; a weekend-long power outage (candles were used to great effect for three ceremonies); a bride who neglected to book a minister (LaFleur scrambled to find one - not easy on a Saturday); and one couple getting married to each other twice. "They got married one year, divorced the next, then married again the year after," he laughs.

Last year, when a couple arrived for a rehearsal the day before their wedding, all the benches had been taken out of the chapel and it was covered in thick dust. "They asked 'Will this be ready by tomorrow?!'" Oh, yes, he assured them, the prospect of litigation in his head, and rustled up a buddy to help him put the benches back and clean up next morning.

Jon Salsberg, former Post-Graduate Students' Society executive chairperson, is having a Unitarian minister preside over his mixed-faith wedding this June to Diane Gattermann. They like the chapel's medieval feel, stained glass and interfaith dimensions. "There's a torah on the wall," he says. They plan to light candles, write their own vows, and shatter a glass in the Jewish tradition. "The two of us drink out of the glass, then it's broken so no others drink out of it," he explains. They'll have medieval music at the ceremony: harp, classical guitar and vocals, courtesy of McGill music students.

Tracie Gemmel and McGill grad Mark Cohen will marry at the chapel this fall. Gemmel says they chose the space because "more than 50 percent of the guests will be from out of town. The chapel and reception are walking distance from hotels." They also like that "it's a non-denominational space, but honours different religions." They, too, will include traditions like the breaking of a glass and marrying under a chupah.

The next celebratory step is the reception. The Faculty Club has space for receptions of an upscale nature. Faculty Club Catering Manager Octavio Vieira likes the atmosphere at the club, citing its homey feel, personal touch and dedicated service. Scrumptious-sounding multi-course meals by chef Pierre Majois help, too. Vieira's there for every event. "When they see a familiar face, right away they feel at ease and that helps make it smooth sailing."

The Gattermann-Salsberg and Gemmel-Cohen parties will head over to the PGSS's Thomson House for their post-wedding shindig.

Jerome Holmes doesn't look like Jennifer Lopez in the movie The Wedding Planner, but that's what he does all the same. As Thomson House administrator, the laid-back Holmes's duties include running receptions, "from the beginning to the end, from the moment they walk in the door to when they leave dead drunk with presents tucked under their arms.

"We're flexible," says Holmes. He meets 5 to 6 times with the couple and calls them regularly. They can colour-coordinate with rented linens and, if you like, provide food, flowers, wedding cakes, and a DJ who'll "play anything from big band to punk."

Thomson House can even supply an officiant and "become a church with a bar in back." Holmes has held civil weddings and Christian ones with "all the pomp and circumstance," he says. One couple, after a Christian ceremony in the chapel, had a Hindu wedding in Thomson House.

He lets creativity run rampant. Wedding favours on the tables have included light-up hacky sacks, plastic bugs and wind-up toys. One environmentalist couple gave pine saplings.

There's the continual excitement of organizing the receiving line, he says. "You always end up these days with too many parents." If he has a peeve, it's intrusive photographers who steal the bride and groom away from the crowd, or make them stop mid cake-cut for the camera.

Often cocktails are served in the lobby, then dinner's upstairs, where up to 110 can fit at round tables ("more social than rectangular"). He provides menus as guidelines and Executive Chef Jessie Newman has even done lactose-intolerant vegetarian dinners. After the meal, staff rearranges the furniture to provide a dance floor.

Gemmel says they chose Thomson House because "Mark had been to weddings there -- it's a gorgeous building, it's nice to have two floors. A lot of wedding spaces are cheesy, like hotels. Here there's wood panelling, it's intimate and affordable.

"Jerome's great -- he's accommodating and you don't feel you're getting gouged. Thomson House is an oasis away from the wedding racket -- it feels less commercial," Gemmel says. "The first day we met he was incredibly thorough. He went through all the steps, saying 'this is what I recommend.'"

Salsberg says he and Gattermann tried to pare the guest list down to less than 160, then gave up, deciding to invite only immediate family. Now, at a lean 18 guests (plus a special appearance by tuxedoed Pooh and Piglet), they're more relaxed.

"You rate weddings by whether you have to go to McDonald's after," Salsberg says. Newman is providing a bang-up meal for his celebration.

There'll be rack of lamb with mint sauce, wild rice, roast chateaux potatoes, ricotta-filled medallions sitting on a red pepper coulis, cream of fennel soup and mesclun salad. As if cake with raspberry coulis weren't enough, there will be fresh strawberries and, oh yes, a cheese, fruit and chocolate platter.

Cohen and Gemmel will have Newman cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at their wedding this October, with turkey and all the trimmings. They plan to decorate it with the help of her sister, using gourds and fall-coloured flowers. "We're going to try to have a klezmer band."

"They're all easy because they're joyous occasions. It's always a festive time," Holmes says. At one reception the bride and groom showed the video of their Elvis wedding in Las Vegas.

Weddings are a service that the University should offer, Holmes feels. "It creates a bond to the University that's beyond education."

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