For the last 17 years, Kevin Charpentier and Sandra Junius have teamed up as wedding coordinators at St. Louis Cathedral, one of the world’s most recognizable Catholic churches and an icon of the City of New Orleans. The cathedral celebrates more than 100 weddings each year.
Kevin and Sandra receive dozens of calls each week from prospective brides inquiring about celebrating their wedding at the cathedral or at St. Mary’s Church, located four blocks downriver on Chartres Street.
Many of the inquiries come from out-of-town couples who are being prepared for marriage in their home dioceses and want to make New Orleans a special part of their new life together.
In this Q&A, Kevin and Sandra talk about their behind-the-scenes preparation, their responsibility to make the wedding day a reverent celebration of a sacrament as well as some of the humorous things that they have witnessed over the years.
One side note: Kevin says many New Orleans Catholics think it is difficult to reserve the cathedral for a wedding because it is so popular, but that’s not the case.
“They feel like there’s a long waiting list,” Kevin says. “We don’t have a long waiting list. We have weddings scheduled for 2021 and even 2022, but we have so many times available to get married, there’s no long waiting list.”
How does the process start for reserving the cathedral for a wedding?
Sandra: Kevin and I both get phone calls. The first thing they ask for is the date, and we don’t give out the date as the first thing. We ask them if they are Catholic. At least one of the couple needs to be Catholic. And then we ask if either of them has been married before and, if so, if anyone has had an annulment or needs an annulment. We also get calls all the time for non-Catholic weddings.
Kevin: That’s because this is the cathedral, which is the symbol of New Orleans, and this is Jackson Square. Sometimes we get asked: “Can we get married this Saturday?” A lot of couples want to get married on the steps or in the garden. A lot of what we’ve learned over the years has come from Deacon David Warriner, who was the vice chancellor of the archdiocese and also served as a deacon here at the cathedral. He’s helped us out so much along the way. When we start talking to the couple, we always ask who is preparing them for marriage and who is going to be the officiant. If the paperwork is not right, we’re on the phone a lot. If everything is on the ball for an out-of-town wedding, their priest is sending the paperwork to their diocese, and the diocese is sending the paperwork to our chancery and our chancery is sending the paperwork to us. That’s what we call a home run. The paperwork comes with a “nihil obstat” (“no objection”). That’s a beautiful thing. We don’t get a lot of home runs. Sometimes they make me sweat. The only way a couple can get married is if they have a marriage license, and it has to be there at the rehearsal. If they forgot it at the hotel, we ask them to go back and get it. Everything works out in the end.
How many calls do you get each week?
Kevin: We can get over 50 in a week. If we’re in the office, we answer the phone, or we return the call as soon as possible. We also get a lot of e-mails. With social media being what it is, we get a lot of that.
Sandra: These girls just send an e-mail at the drop of a hat.
Kevin: Sometimes when we answer an e-mail, they answer right back, like they’re right there waiting for it.
Sandra: When they ask for the date, we ask them to be patient because sometimes it takes us a while to return the call.
Kevin: And sometimes it’s the mother on the phone, and we always say we need to talk to the bride. We’re very busy. Sometimes you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. You can get married at the cathedral six days a week – Monday through Saturday. Our most popular times on Saturday are 7 o’clock at the cathedral and 5 o’clock at St. Mary’s.
What’s the percentage of out-of-town weddings at the cathedral?
Kevin: I would say it’s probably 90% out-of-town couples. New Orleans is a destination city. Many girls in New Orleans, if they are Catholic through and through, like getting married in their home church.
Sandra: When we say out of town, we’re talking Houma-Thibodaux and Baton Rouge, but we also have many weddings for people from Florida, Texas, California and New York.
Kevin: Last year, we had a couple that planned their wedding around a Saints game, and they were from Canada. They got married, and the entire bridal party and families went to the Saints game. We’ve also had quite a few Saints players get married here. At one wedding, Drew Brees was in the church when I opened the two doors just as the wedding was about to be over. I thought everybody was looking at me, but Drew was standing behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. He wanted to know if he could go out another door so he wouldn’t detract from the bride and groom. I told him, “I think they know you’re here already.”
What process do you go through to determine that the wedding couple from out of town has been going through marriage preparation in their home diocese?
Kevin: We’ve got to make sure they’re properly prepared. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, we do everything by the book, and it seems like Texas, New York and California also have good policies. If a non-Catholic is marrying a Catholic and they want Mass, we have to get permission from the archbishop to do that. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Does the size of the weddings vary?
Kevin: We’ve done wedding just for the couple themselves and just a few family members. We’ve done weddings where over a thousand people attended. The wedding rehearsal is usually done the night before the wedding. Sometimes the priest is there and sometimes he can’t get there, but Sandra and I try to make the couple feel perfect. We go through the whole ceremony.
What kind of comments do people have about the cathedral?
Sandra: They love it. It’s just absolutely gorgeous, and they’re overwhelmed. They can’t believe it. You don’t get this anywhere else but in New Orleans.
Kevin: The bells are ringing and everybody is in Jackson Square. When the doors open at the end of the wedding, everybody is screaming for the bride and groom. They really do feel like a princess and a prince.
Sandra: The sacrament is over, and they can party.
Can French Quarter traffic present some challenges?
Sandra: Yes, it does. We had one wedding where the limo people left the bride at the hotel. Our police officer went in her squad car and turned on the flasher lights and got her in the car. She got from Canal Street to the cathedral in three minutes. The bride took it very well.
Kevin: We always ask them what kind of transportation they’re taking.
Sandra: You never know when there’s going to be a parade. We tell them, “Spend the extra money and get the police escort.” They don’t have to decorate the church because the altar itself is magnificent.
Kevin: There’s poetry in simplicity.
How do you all get along in what can be a stressful job?
Kevin: We both tell each other, “We cannot do this job without the other.”
Are there some sensitive issues you’ve run into with families?
Kevin: The most problems we have are with the mothers of the bride, and every now and then, we get a dad who’s hard to handle. We do have problems with fainting every now and then. I’m ready with a cold rag to put behind their necks.
Sandra: I’ve had a bridesmaid faint, and when I got back from taking care of her, the bride fainted on the altar.
Kevin: I tell them at the rehearsal to make sure they have some crackers with them. A lot of girls are up at the crack of dawn and haven’t had a bite to eat.
Sandra: And don’t give them champagne!
Kevin: But, really, all of our weddings go off without a hitch!
Sandra: It’s so amazing when you see the bride and groom looking in each other’s eyes. It makes you cry.
Kevin: A lot of people don’t realize that the sacrament of matrimony is just about the couple. My bride and groom are the centerpiece of the altar. That’s how I like to feel about it. Having a wedding at the cathedral is like no other place. It’s just a really spiritual experience.
Sandra: You see that bride go up and the music is playing and you hardly know these girls, and you get goosebumps and tears. Oh, my gosh, how wonderful.
Kevin: I like to tell them when they have babies of their own, bring them back to the cathedral and have them baptized. A lot of them have done that.
For information on St. Louis Cathedral, call 503-0351.