Call it "Eight Weddings and a Fiesta," the real-life drama of the pastor of an impoverished Latino parish eager to see his congregation's couples married in the church.
Father Bill Barman dreamed up an idea to throw a mass wedding, picking up the bill for the photographer, decorations, three-tiered cake, deejay and flowers.
For the brides and grooms who said "Si, te acepto" Saturday night at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Santa Ana, Barman offered the deal of a lifetime: a wedding they otherwise couldn't afford, along with a chance to get back in harmony with the Roman Catholic church.
Unable to shoulder the financial burden of an expensive church wedding, many of the working-class couples Saturday already had tied the knot in civil ceremonies. But those weddings aren't recognized as valid church unions.
Barman's weddings offered them an easy way back. The brides and grooms needed to do three things in return: Attend a 12-week marriage class, find something to wear on the big day, and have their families bring their favorite Mexican dishes to the reception.
"It's real nice of the church, because it costs so much money for a wedding," said Lauro Gonzalez, who married Maria Concepcion in a civil ceremony seven years ago. They have two young children. Gonzalez said a church wedding at the time would have cost him $10,000.
"We decided to do a church wedding because of our kids. We weren't comfortable being away from God," Gonzalez said.
The 16 men and women who crowded around the altar at Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturday joined hundreds of others who have taken advantage of Barman's wedding program over the past six years. The priest has wed up to 14 couples at a time during his twice-yearly group ceremonies.
"The ceremony was astounding," said Dwight Smith, godfather for newlyweds Jose and Blanca Ivonne Estevez. Each couple had godparents stand with them during the ceremony, a church requirement. "I've never seen anything like it in my life."
When Barman came to the parish in 1993, only 20% took Communion, a central act of worship for Catholics available only to those living in accordance with church rule. One reason for the low numbers at Our Lady of Lourdes, Barman said, was the many couples married in civil ceremonies not recognized by the church.
The mass weddings have helped boost participation in Communion to 80%, Barman says.
"This is evangelism on the ground floor," he said. "Now when we say 'The Lord loves you, and you're my brother,' those aren't just words. We show it. With all the love and care, they see the words take flesh."
Aida Sanchez took advantage of the free church wedding in 1996. Now, she is one of the 40 volunteers who help with the weddings at the church, where 800 families are members.
"The experience was really, really nice," Sanchez said. "Now I want to bring people that same feeling."
Sharing the marital spotlight didn't seem to bother any of the couples.
"It's better," Heriberto Hernandez said. "We're able to share the experience and make some new friends."
Added Gonzalez: "And you're not as nervous with everyone else up there too."
Barman said it helps that Mexican culture emphasizes community.
"Culturally, spiritually and even economically, the Mexican people collaborate," Barman said. "They're not as culturally insistent on individualism as the Anglo culture is."
After exchanging vows, the newlyweds and nearly 500 guests poured into the church's large patio, where they feasted on homemade carnitas, tacos, tortillas, tamales, rice and beans, and performed wedding-day customs brought from Mexico.
During one dance, friends of the grooms conferred on them the "rites of manhood"--an apron and broom. They then gave belts to the brides to keep their new husbands sweeping along. And the deejay played "El Baile del Mandilon" ("The Dance of the Coward"), giving the grooms a chance to dance with their new brooms.
At the end of Saturday night's ceremonies, Barman told the crowd that the next 12-week wedding class begins in June.
"I'm never going to stop," Barman said, "until everyone in our church goes to Communion."