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Mass Weddings Fulfilling Dreams

Santa Ana priest holds classes and ceremonies for those wanting to marry in the church.

May 19, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

They've been a couple for 25 years, but Saturday night, Joaquin and Maria Vargas were jittery newlyweds.

Under a canopy of red and white balloons and white paper flowers behind Our Lady of Lourdes church, they gazed into each other's eyes and agreed to stand by each other "en la salud y en la enfermedad," in health and in sickness. And after Father Bill Barman declared them married before God, the nervous groom turned to the priest and asked if he could kiss the bride.

"Si, tu quieres, ella es tu esposa!" the priest replied, telling him yes, she's his wife. Cheers and laughter broke out among the 12 other couples standing in a semicircle around him who had waited nervously to be married.

The men and women were officially tying the knot in a mass wedding ceremony, which has been a yearly tradition for this church in an impoverished Santa Ana parish, and now draws couples from across the Southland.

Many of the newlyweds, like the Vargases, had been together for years, and some had already been married in civil ceremonies in their native Mexico. But they had never married in the Roman Catholic Church, and because of this, could not participate in church rituals, such as receiving consecrated bread and wine in Holy Communion.

Other participants received their first Communion or confirmation during the Mass.

"They loved each other a lot before they met me," Barman said of each couple. "But they come to share it with us today and that gives me great joy."

When Barman came to Our Lady of Lourdes in 1994, he noticed that few parishioners took Communion. When he discovered it was because many couples had not been married in the church and could not afford a wedding, he decided to marry couples en masse.

In 1999, the priest began inviting couples to attend a 12-week class in order to marry in the church. In return, he supplied the reception venue, the music, the photography, the food and everything else.

The weddings have proven so popular -- with 500 to 800 friends and relatives attending the festivities -- he now holds them on the tiny church's back patio.

"You'd keep thinking I'd run out of couples, but I announce it and they show up," he said.

Since he started the mass weddings, participation in Communion has gone from 10% to 80% of church attendees, he said.

Sergio Perez, 35, and Blanca Briseno, 33, have been together for more than 13 years. The Lake Elsinore couple said they decided to marry in the church for their four children.

"My kids want to see us get married, and, in the future, we want them to get married [in the church]," Perez said.

Barman said the couples feel a "social debt" to invite their families and friends. He tries to limit their numbers to 40 per couple.

The priest estimates that the average Mexican couple would spend $5,000 to $7,000 on a wedding. To marry 13 couples on Saturday, he said he spent less than $1,500 in cash, while volunteers did the cooking and donated services such as photography.

"I think this is nice for people who don't have the money [for their own ceremony]," said Fernando Vergara, 34, of Santa Ana, who came to see friends Jose and Maria Albaran get hitched.

The only difference between the mass ceremony and smaller, individual weddings is the length. Saturday's was nearly two hours.

"It was long," said Linda Garcia, 18, who attended to receive her first Communion and confirmation, as did some other individuals. "After a while, I started to get bored."

But for the Santa Ana teen, it was important to make the sacrament. "I was getting too old and I wanted to be closer to God," she said.

After the official service, the couples, along with family and friends, celebrated as they would at any wedding, dancing to a DJ, posing for photographs and eating.

In years past, couples supplied their own food. Saturday, volunteers had prepared pots of chicken in mole sauce and rice and beans.

Coordinating such a large-scale event took organizers nearly five months. In charge of it all was Oselia Maldonado, 53, who has attended the church since 1985. Maldonado, whom Barman calls la reina de la cocina -- queen of the kitchen -- organized more than 100 volunteers and the cooking of 80 pounds of beans and 250 pounds of chicken. She admits doubting she could pull it off.

"I said, 'How are we going to do so much food?' I spent a few sleepless nights wondering how am I going to do this and asking myself, 'Why did I say yes?' "

She had help from people like Aida Sanchez, 39, of Garden Grove. Sanchez was married several years ago by Barman in a mass wedding and has volunteered her time at every ceremony since. This year, she and five of her family members made the paper flowers that hung over the couples' heads, cutting up nearly 4,000 sheets of paper by hand.

"I do it because I like to see the smiles on the faces of the couples," said Sanchez.


Times staff writer William Lobdell contributed to this report.

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