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Chapel of Love--and Broken Hearts

Businesses on downtown's 'wedding row' now also process divorces--sometimes for couples they've married.

August 16, 2000|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first phone call of the day to the owner of the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel is from an unhappy customer. "I've changed my mind," cries a bride who had tied the knot at the downtown chapel 24 hours earlier. "How do I get out of this?"

Not a problem, says an upbeat Maria Morchon. "Come back."

In an era in which most retailers boast liberal exchange policies, the wedding chapels along Broadway have their own unique take on returns.

For almost three decades, the section of downtown L.A.'s most colorful shopping thoroughfare between 2nd and 4th streets has been a sort of Wedding Central, where a trio of chapels accounts for 9% of all of Los Angeles County's nuptials. But in recent years, chapel owners have also begun processing paperwork for divorces, frequently attracting the same couples who were married there.

"You hear everything," says Victor Gonzalez of La Catedral Wedding Chapel. "People come in here and they start talking and explaining why it went wrong, even when I don't ask."

Day and night, Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" blares from the chapels amid the downtown bustle of cars and pedestrians. Outside, sidewalk signs with scarlet letters advertise both marriages and divorces.

"It's a roulette," explains Morchon, whose chapel has been in business 29 years. "They all don't last."

Particularly on Tuesdays: the most popular day for divorce Broadway-style. "I think people want to begin the week differently," says Gonzalez. "We get a lot of inquiries on Monday, and then people come on Tuesdays to begin the process."

At Guadalupe one recent Tuesday, two men walked in separately, both with cash in their hands. Alejandro Montes, 38, says he's been separated for four years and is just getting around to making it official.

"In three months, you will be free!" Morchon says, sounding like a cheerleader.

The Los Angeles restaurant cook smiles and admits he doubts he will marry again, even though his girlfriend and three children are waiting for him by the door.

"So many of you say that," says Morchon, herself on her second marriage. "And then you land right here again."

Lilian Castro landed back at Guadalupe three years after she got married there on her way to work one day. This time, she is divorcing the father of her two sons. Pretty and bright, the Los Angeles supermarket cashier is all smiles as Morchon grabs her file and tells her it will be over in five months.

"Do you want alimony?" Morchon asks.

"No," the 22-year-old wife says.

"Do you want money for the boys?"

"Nothing. I want nothing from him."

"Do you want to go back to your maiden name?"

"Oh, yeah," she says, snarling. "I don't want that ugly name."

"OK, you'll be free before the end of the year."

"I'm so happy!" Castro shrieks, before picking up her 3-year-old son, planting a kiss on his cheek, and leaving.

An Option for Simple Cases

The usual divorce-in-a-chapel takes three to six months, costs less than $500 and requires nothing more than a notarized agreement if the couple does not quibble over assets, debts or child support. If the process proves contentious, the chapel's paralegal or legal document assistant files the paperwork and the case goes before a judge.

Couples undo their vows in modest offices, with photographs of smiling brides and grooms staring at them from the walls. Behind the offices are the pastel-colored chapels, stuffed with silk roses and irises and brimming with hope. The setting may be unusual, but the procedures are the same followed by paralegals in other storefronts that offer similar services.

"There are offices everywhere that help with the filing of divorces," said Alan Tanenbaum, chairman of the State Bar of California's Family Law Advisory Commission. "If a couple doesn't have large issues or a lot of money, or they're not dealing with custody, and they feel this serves them, I don't see a problem with it. But, people with large family estates, sizable retirement plans or children, are better served by an attorney."

When it comes to the next couple, Morchon might agree.

They've brought their 8-year-old son and do not want to be identified in the newspaper. In a matter of seconds, their crumbling relationship is exposed.

She accuses him of neglecting his children; he counters that he is not sure their daughter is his.

She says she is willing to take the girl for a blood test and charges that he has already remarried in Mexico. (On their son's birthday to boot!)

He shoots back that he's willing to give her money for his son if she allows the boy to spend time with him.

The wife crosses her arms and purses her lips; the husband covers his face with his hands.

"There has been a lack of communication," Morchon interrupts after they argue for six minutes. "What happened happened. Let's move forward and put everything in writing so there will be no problems."

The estranged wife starts again: "We had an agreement. He was going to wait until I get my green card and then we would get divorced and I wouldn't ask him for a penny."

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