Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.




photo by laurel mountain photography

 

Picture a wedding in a church. One partner walks slowly down the aisle as an organ plays the familiar notes of a traditional wedding march or Pachelbel’s 
“Canon in D.” Friends and family stand between rows of wooden pews while the spouse-to-be waits in front of an altar.

Now imagine a couple in a meadow. One partner passes through rows of white lawn chairs, the whole scene illuminated by bright summer sunshine. The other stands beneath an archway made of roses, next to a friend who became ordained just for the occasion.

Both scenes come to mind easily. Most of us probably have attended both a traditional church wedding and an outdoor ceremony. In recent years, though, many couples have begun to seek out less conventional settings for their wedding days, according to wedding planners and others who work in wedding-related businesses locally and nationally.

In a recent study, the Public Religion Research Institute of Washington, D.C., reports that younger couples increasingly are planning secular weddings. The study by the nonprofit research organization found that in 2013, 39 percent of U.S. married couples between the ages of 18 and 29 chose to wed in a place of worship. By contrast, nearly half of the couples ages 30 to 49 and 65 percent of couples older than 50 chose a sacred, rather than secular, setting.

While many couples in Pittsburgh and elsewhere continue to seek out traditional houses of worship for their weddings, others opt for venues they believe reflect their personalities and relationships. That’s often the case when the couple holds different — or no — religious affiliations.

One such couple is Marissa Kaminski and Dave Mateer, who say they knew from the start they wanted to say their vows outdoors when they married on July 11, 2015. “Being outside made more sense for us than being in a church,” Marissa says. “Dave’s family is Presbyterian, and mine is Catholic. Neither of us [is] part of that space regularly, so we didn’t really feel [a religious ceremony] would be right to do.”

She says she and her now-husband generally can be found outdoors, spending time in their backyard or hiking with their dog. “Being in nature is what we like to do,” Marissa says. “We felt that setting would be the most unique to us.”
 


Marissa Kaminski (above) and Dave Mateer were married outdoors at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden / photo by hot metal studio

 

Marissa and Dave were the fifth couple to marry at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale, which opened in April 2015. They say they immediately fell in love with its stunning scenery, and they found it offered all of the amenities they sought to make their guests comfortable. Located 10 miles west of the city, the 460-acre garden is equipped with plenty of parking, indoor restrooms and a reception space with heating and air conditioning.

For their ceremony, the couple picked the Peirce Celebration Garden, with its charming stone wedding wall, for their 180-guest wedding. Botanic Garden Events Manager Megan DeBertrand says couples with smaller guest lists also may choose the Dogwood Meadow or the Lotus Pond for their ceremonies. “It depends on the season and what’s in bloom,” she says.

Aside from the convenience, DeBertrand says the best thing about a Botanic Garden wedding is the beautiful background of wildflower meadows, leafy trees, gazebo and Japanese garden around the Lotus Pond. “If you do a ceremony here, you have free range to take your wedding photographs anywhere within the garden,” she says. “It’s really lovely.”

Eva Lin and Art Douglass also drew inspiration from their personalities and identity as a couple in choosing a venue for their ceremony. The two love to travel, but they knew some of their loved ones would be unable to attend a destination wedding. They say they didn’t feel particularly drawn to a church wedding, so they wanted to marry in a place that was nearby and nontraditional but still felt like a getaway.
 


photo by rachel rowland

 

They chose Rustic Acres Farm, an hour from Downtown in Volant, for their wedding on May 24, 2015. “Rustic Acres was the only venue we visited,” says Eva.

“There was a beautiful little lake, and we could bring all of our DIY stuff, and [Rustic Acres] also offers complete event-planning services. They do everything for you.”

Rustic Acres is operated by JPC event group, which has the capacity to handle everything for an event, from décor to catering. CEO and Creative Director Jody Wimer has more than 17 years of experience under her belt. “We don’t always do everything exactly Pittsburgh, or even East Coast,” she says of JPC. “We do a lot of West Coast inspiration.”
 


Eva Lin and Art Douglass chose Rustic Acres Farm for their wedding on May 24. photo by Rachel Rowland

 

Rustic Acres was custom-designed with weddings in mind. The owners renovated the barn and a rustic bridal cottage and created several ceremony locations on the property; one is tucked in a corner of the horse pasture, one is beneath a grapevine arch in the lawn behind the barn and one is beneath an enormous willow tree beside the pond, in addition to several others. “The most popular [location] is the willow tree,” says Wimer. “It’s very dramatic because of the way the fronds come down and envelop you. It’s really, really beautiful.”

Eva and Art said their vows under the willow. Eva, who operates her own wedding photography business, used an archway made of branches from a wedding she was scheduled to shoot later in the year. “I gave [that bride] a few extra hours of cover time in exchange for the arch from her wedding,” she says with a laugh.
In her work as a photographer, Eva says she’s noticed a recent trend in couples choosing less-traditional locations for their ceremonies. “I encourage my couples to choose tradition [only] if it fits for you. I think that’s why a lot of people are choosing not to get married in a church. Do anything that feels good for you as a couple,” she says.
 


Brandy Patrick and Kevin Lopez chose the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel for their nuptials / photo by by KTD Photos

 

The perfect feel-good spot for Brandy Patrick’s wedding to Kevin Lopez on Sept. 19, 2015 was the grand staircase at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, Downtown.

“My husband is Catholic and I’m not, so we didn’t want to go the traditional route of doing it at a church,” Brandy says. “We wanted something that was still romantic but different.”

As she researched aspects of local venues, Brandy says photographs showing the stairs at the Renaissance reminded her of the scenery in the film “Cinderella.” “[It’s] my favorite Disney movie, so I was really drawn to it,” she recalls. “When I saw it in person, I [realized] this is absolutely it.”

The Renaissance is one of many hotels that offer ceremony setups in addition to reception spaces. Hotel catering-services manager and wedding coordinator Katy Simovski estimates about 30 percent of her clients who book a reception also book a ceremony. Of those couples, she says 90 percent choose to hold their ceremony in the lobby — drawn by the grand staircase that hooked Brandy.

​Simovski says couples may find advantages in choosing to hold their ceremony and reception in the same location; high among those reasons is convenience for guests who won’t need transportation between wedding and reception sites. As does the Renaissance, hotels may offer a discount on the rehearsal dinner or brunch the next day. 

For a ceremony on the grand staircase, the Renaissance closes curtains all around the lobby, controls noise levels and tailors the lighting at no cost. “There were no other venues that had the stairs, the architecture, the ceiling,” Brandy says. “It was just such a fairytale.”
 


Katie McGillivray and Torrey Gallagher said their vows on May 2 inside the Children’s Museum / photo by jessica vogelsang

 

While planning their wedding on May 2, 2015, Katie McGillivray and Torrey Gallagher say they were immediately swayed by the upbeat atmosphere they found during a tour of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side. “It was bright and friendly, and there were a bunch of kids running around,” Katie says. “It just kind of had a good feeling.”

They chose the museum’s Art Studio for their ceremony and the Big Red Room for their reception. “We liked the contrast of it being an older building but having fun twists inside [such as the] giant glass bird, streamers and oversized lanterns in the Red Room,” Katie says.

George Brzezinski, the museum director of visitor services, says those are the most popular spaces chosen by couples, but he adds the indoor theatre or Buhl Community Park outside the museum also are options for ceremonies. “The theatre is more of [a small] space with a [small] stage and theatre lighting,” he says. “The park, which is directly in front of the museum, has won awards for its landscape architecture.”

The Art Studio — located on what once was the main floor of the Allegheny Post Office built in 1898 — features a grand dome and several colorful art installations.

“There is plenty of natural light and a stained-glass window that makes a perfect backdrop,” Brzezinski says. Katie and Torrey set up an L-shaped aisle for their 70 guests and created a backdrop over the stained glass.

​Brzezinski says he, too, has worked with more couples of late who are looking to hold their ceremony and reception in one space.

Katie says she liked that idea. “We didn’t want to have to worry about people driving around Pittsburgh [because] a lot of our guests were from out of town,” she says. “I think you just have to find the place that feels special to you and makes you feel happy and relaxed. It just has to have the right feeling to you.”
Katie says her guests had a great time, and she couldn’t be happier with her choice. For other couples, however, a location with more conventional aspects feels right. Many choose to wed in Heinz Memorial Chapel, a venue that feels traditional but transcends religious divides.
 


Alicia Olson and Brian Bergell wed at the non-denominational Heinz Memorial Chapel on Sept. 12, 2015 / photo by laurel mountain photography

 

“People need a neutral place,” says Pat Gibbons, director of the Oakland-based nondenominational chapel given by the H.J. Heinz family to the University of Pittsburgh. “Religion was as important to the Heinz family as education, and they believed they needed to be creating well-rounded individuals.”
Heinz Chapel is famous for its breathtaking Gothic architecture and stained-glass windows, which depict historical heavyweights such as Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare in addition to religious icons.

The chapel also holds a special place in the hearts of many Pitt students and alumni. “There’s a tradition that if you kiss on the steps, one day you will be married here,” says chapel Assistant Director Wendy Lau.

The beauty of the chapel, as well as its relationship with Pitt, attracts more than 150 couples each year to say their vows and pose in front of its red doors. Among them were Alicia Olson and Brian Bergell, who married there on Sept. 12, 2015.

“We both attended the University of Pittsburgh ... so it’s something we walked by quite often,” Alicia says. “We always wanted to get married there. It just meant a lot to us.”

Although Alicia and Brian grew up in Catholic families, they say they couldn’t resist the appeal of the nondenominational chapel. “We talked about doing an untraditional ceremony, but our relationship had blossomed at Pitt, [which] had a beautiful chapel. [The chapel] allowed us to bring in our own priest from Erie, who knew Brian and me quite well,” Alicia says.

In the past, couples could book their weddings at Heinz Chapel no more than one year in advance. As of Jan. 4, however, a policy change now permits couples to book the space two years in advance.

“The change is driven by a growing trend [for] many couples [who] are taking two years or more to plan their nuptials,” Gibbons says. 

In an even bigger shift, Heinz Chapel also has started to book weddings of couples who are unaffiliated with Pitt. In the past, only couples with ties to the university were permitted to use the landmark chapel, but now Heinz is opening its doors to all brides and grooms. The change was motivated in part by the growth in popularity of less traditional venues such as barns, hotels and museums. Gibbons says the chapel will offer a 15 percent discount to Pitt alumni. 

With those changes, Heinz expects to surpass its already impressive rate of holding more than 150 weddings each year. Alicia says her ceremony was one of five held there that day, but the tight schedule wasn’t a problem. 

“I was afraid they’d kick us out, but it wasn’t like that at all,” Alicia says. “I never felt like I was being rushed or any of my guests were being rushed out, even though we had only an hour to do a full Catholic ceremony.”
 


photo by leeann marie photography

 

She credits the seamless transitions to Gibbons and Lau. “You can just tell they are experienced,” Alicia says. “They made everything run really smoothly.”
Of course, plenty of couples still say their vows in other places of worship throughout Pittsburgh, a city brimming with beautiful churches, cathedrals and synagogues. Among those breathtaking venues is St. Mary of the Mount, the 19th-century triumph of architecture that crowns Mount Washington.

The sanctuary’s aesthetic attracted Sarah Cruikshank and Greg Jasiota for their wedding on April 25, 2015. “I wanted a church that was just crisp,” Sarah says. “St. Mary’s is very clean, it’s very white, the ceilings are just gorgeous and the exterior of the church is beautiful with the stained glass. It was just that old-world look that I wanted — that classic Westminster Abbey feel.”
 


Sarah Cruikshank and Greg Jasiota were married on April 25 in St. Mary of the Mount church on Mount Washington. photo by leeann marie photography

 

Church office manager Sandy Crowley says St. Mary is special for its architecture and age but also for its convenient proximity to reception sites. “It’s centrally located,” she says. “From Mount Washington, you can pretty much get anywhere in the city within 15 to 20 minutes.”

Sarah and Greg arranged for their guests to stay at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square and held their reception at the Grand Concourse restaurant, also in the Station Square complex. “The hotel was just a hop, skip and a jump away from the church and then to the venue,” Sarah says.
Crowley says any couple can say “I do” at St. Mary of the Mount if at least one of them is Catholic. “If they’re not a parishioner here, they do have to bring their own priest,” Crowley says.

Greg is a Catholic, but Sarah is an Episcopalian. For their wedding, all that was required of Sarah was some extra paperwork, she says. “We chose not to do a full Mass, so we didn’t [receive] Communion because my side of the family wouldn’t have been able to participate,” she says. 
Crowley says plenty of couples are still flocking to St. Mary of the Mount for the architecture and the view. In fact, she’s already booked 71 weddings for 2016. “I think it’s our highest so far,” she says. “We’re already scheduling into 2017.”   
 

 

 

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