Jul 22, 2017

A Wedding in Hot Springs, N.C.

The Chapel of the Redeemer, the church in which Margo and I were married.
By Christmas, 1977, Margo Burge and I had decided to get married.  I was 38, she was 37, and neither of us had ever been married.  We decided we didn't want a big wedding; a modest wedding would better suit our personalities and our stage in life.  That, however, raises the question of "Whom do we invite?"  And that raises the issue of how not to offend those who are not invited.  We finally decided to elope over Easter weekend.  The couple who had introduced us would be our witnesses.  We also decided that after the wedding we would throw a celebration party somewhere on the Mississippi Gulf coast and invite all of our friends and relatives.  That eliminated the issue of offending someone who might not have been on a wedding invitation list.

Jim and Linda Schmidt had introduced Margo and me about a year earlier.  I had met the Schmidts a few years earlier through the Pass Christian Public Library, where Linda served as the head librarian.  My sister-in-law, Joan, worked there as a volunteer.  Margo, my soon-to-be bride, was the Head Librarian of the Gulfport/Harrison County Library System.

Jim Schmidt and I had backpacked together on a number of occasions over a period of several years.  Shortly after Margo and I had started dating, we and the Schmidts had gone on a backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail.  So our conversation at one point turned to, "Wouldn't it be cool to get married on the Appalachian Trail?"  That led to my calling an old friend, Peter Julius, who had completed hiking the entire trail two years earlier.  I asked Peter if he had encountered any interesting churches or chapels along the trail where a wedding ceremony might take place.  He suggested the Chapel of the Redeemer in Hot Springs, North Carolina.  A former church-run orphanage, it served as a hostel for hikers and was primarily a Catholic retreat center served by a couple of Jesuit priests whom Peter thought very highly of.  The priest in charge was a middle-aged man named Charles Jeffries "Jeff" Burton, who had served extensively in South American missions before being assigned to the backwaters of rural North Carolina.  His colleague at the retreat center was an elderly "retired" Jesuit named Andrew Graves, who had been serving in Western North Carolina since the 1930s.

Margo and I called Father Jeff Burton within a few days.  He was most gracious and said that although they didn't have very many weddings at the center, they'd love to perform our marriage ceremony, and we settled on Easter Sunday, April 27th, 1978.  Because I was at that time a Roman Catholic, I would have to coordinate the arrangements through my local parish in Mississippi.  There was also some paperwork that we would need to fill out to bring to North Carolina to get our Marriage license.  That had to be done in person prior to the weekend of the wedding.  The state also required a physical exam (not just a blood test) but that could be performed by a physician in Mississippi.  Father Jeff said he'd send the necessary forms and papers the next day.

From the time I had arrived on the Gulf Coast in 1972, I had spent most weekends at my brother's home in Pass Christian.  I usually attended Mass in either Pass Christian, or at some other rural Catholic church in the area.  I lived in Gautier, Mississippi, about 40 miles from Pass Christian.  I didn't even know the pastor of my so-called home parish.  As soon as I received the papers from Father Jeff, I proceeded to St. Mary's Catholic Church on de la Pointe Drive in Gautier, and introduced myself to the pastor, Father Cleery, an Irish priest.  We did not hit it off well.  He immediately wanted to know why I had never attended Mass at "his" church.  Eventually, he agreed to administer a questionnaire that was required for engaged couples.  All went well until the question, "Do you intend to honor all the privileges and obligations of the married state?"  I assured Father Cleery that I intended to enjoy the privileges of the married state as often as possible, but that we did not plan to have any children (one of the "obligations" of the married state).   I explained that Margo had been advised by her gynecologist that she should probably never get pregnant, as it was unlikely she could ever have a successful pregnancy.  Father Cleery expressed dismay.  "I don't believe that a valid Catholic marriage can be performed under these circumstances!" he declared in his thick Irish brogue.  I responded by requesting a meeting with the diocesan Chancellor, the Bishop's assistant in charge of interpreting canon law among other duties.  A few days later Margo and I met with the Chancellor in Biloxi, who had absolutely no issues with our plans to limit our family and cleared the way for us to be married in the church on Easter Sunday.

The requirement for a physical exam created an interesting problem.  I had never needed a doctor since I had arrived on the Gulf Coast.  I didn't have a "family physician."  Margo had the perfect solution.  She had worked for several years as a fund raiser for the American Cancer Society.  They often ran free Pap Smear Clinics for early detection of cervical cancer.  As a result, she knew just about every gynecologist on the coast.  She called up one her doctor friends in Biloxi.  He'd be more than happy to give me a physical.  So, during one lunch hour, I met Margo at the rear entrance to a doctor's office.  Just as we got there, a gentleman in a very sweaty tennis outfit came running up and hugged Margo.  "I'm so sorry to be late.  I forgot our appointment.  Is this the guy?" he asked.  Margo informed him that I was indeed the guy.  The doctor introduced himself and asked me how I felt.  I said I felt fine.  "Would you take him even if he was in bad shape?" he asked Margo.  "Sure," she said.  "Where do I sign the form?" he asked.  My physical exam had been completed!

Father Jeff fishing in Chile in the 1960s
On Good Friday, the Schmidts and Margo and I packed into one vehicle to head for Marshall, North Carolina, the county seat of Madison County, which encompasses Hot Springs.  As we drove through Chattanooga, we realized that in our careful planning, we had neglected to account for the time zone change.  We were now one hour behind our planned itinerary.  Jim drove like a bat out of hell and we arrived at the Marshall County (NC) Courthouse at 4:57 PM.  We ran inside hoping they'd still be open.  Two ladies greeted us with big smiles.  "We were going to wait as late as we needed to.  Your wedding is a big deal to Hot Springs and we figured you might have forgotten the time change."  I love rural America.  We signed the necessary papers, gave the ladies a big hug, and headed to Hot Springs.

Father Andrew Graves, 1971
Courtesy of the Marshall, NC
The one motel in town had not planned to open until the following weekend, but Father Jeff had convinced them to open early to put us up.  We got checked in, cleaned up, and headed for the Chapel of the Redeemer.  We were greeted at the door of the priests' residence by an exuberant Father Jeff Burton.  He invited us in and ushered us into their comfortable living room.  It was as if we had known each other for a long time.  I asked about Father Graves and Jeff explained that he'd be in later.  He was accompanying the local Baptist pastor to a funeral service that was taking place high on the mountain at a log cabin.  The two clergy were going by jeep as far as they could and proceeding the rest of the way by mules.  Father Graves had been asked to go "because he's about the only one around who knows how to get there."   A couple came into the room and Jeff introduced them as his sister Kathy and her husband, Pete.  They inquired if we'd mind if they attended our wedding.  We told them we'd be honored by their presence.   It was getting late, so we excused ourselves and told Jeff we'd see him and Father Graves the next afternoon, as I had offered to cook a lasagna dinner for everyone on Saturday night before the wedding.  We went back to the hotel, downed some snack food, and crashed.

The priest's residence in Hot Springs, adjacent to the chapel
We rose early on Saturday and headed for Asheville to buy groceries for the Saturday night dinner and to get flowers for the girls.  We went to a florist's shop (Remember -- This is the day before Easter.) and informed them that we needed flowers for a wedding.  I thought the woman behind the counter was going to faint!  The girls explained that it would be just the two of them.  The delightful lady began to help Margo and Linda.  Meanwhile Jim and I began looking around and found a section of the place that had several samples of funeral wreaths and sprays on display.  Since great minds work alike, I immediately laid on the floor and Jim started placing various floral arrangements on me and taking pictures.  The florist and the two girls walked by and the lady was shocked to see me on the floor with my arms crossed on my chest covered with a wreath.  She did a double take.  Margo said, "This is so typical.  Can you believe I'm marrying that one?!?"  Soon we had our flowers and were on our way.  After getting the ingredients for lasagna and a salad and some dinner wine, we were on our way back to Hot Springs.

After we stopped by the motel and got freshened up, we proceeded to the residence where I began preparing our evening meal, lasagna, in a wood-burning kitchen range!  I prepared the sauce from scratch, boiled the noodles, cooked the meat, mixed the eggs and ricotta, assembled the dish and began baking it while I prepared the salad.  We also had fresh Italian bread that we had gotten in Asheville dipped in seasoned olive oil.  There was plenty of food and wine for everybody and lots of toasts were offered for a happy, healthy, prosperous marriage.  We cleaned up the dishes and left the kitchen spotless as we returned to our motel close to midnight.

On Sunday, we awoke early and got cleaned up.  The wedding was planned for one o'clock.  We all attended mass at the chapel at 9:00 AM, where Father Graves was the celebrant.  He pronounced that we had three things to be especially grateful for that day.  It was the Feast of the Risen Christ.  Bob and Margo would be pronouncing their vows of marriage in this very chapel later in the day.  And there were more Catholics present in the chapel than they had ever seen -- a total of 28!  Of course, the wedding party and Father Jeff's relatives helped boost that number by six.  After Mass, we returned to our motel to change into our wedding clothes.   After a few minutes, Jim showed up at our door with a couple of celebratory shots of Jack Daniels to share with me.  We downed them with gusto just as Margo came out to see what we were up to.

Margo must have known me well, for she immediately called the church and asked for the wedding to be moved up to noon.  There would be no time for additional toasts.  We finished getting dressed and headed back to the church.  I think she knew that if we didn't head for the church for another hour, there was a good chance I'd be three sheets to the wind before the service.

The church was small, but still seemed quite empty with only Father Jeff as celebrant, Father Andrew, Jim and Linda, Margo and me, and Pete and Kathy, who were sitting in the front pew.  We started the service, which was simple and solemn.  Soon, I couldn't help hearing Kathy, who was sobbing uncontrollably, even though she hadn't met us until a couple of days previous!  In only a few minutes, we had pronounced our vows and the ceremony concluded with a solemn blessing.  We were man and wife!  Father Jeff invited us back to the residence to do some final paperwork.

We were shown a large leather bound book, which was the register of baptisms, confirmations, and marriages performed over the years at the Chapel of the Redeemer.  Father Jeff had already filled in the lines describing our marriage and had drawn the lines where we were to record our signatures.  As he handed over the book, he pointed to a line a few rows above ours.  "I hope your marriage works out better than this one did," he said.  "She caught him in bed with another woman and shot him dead!"  We signed our names in the appropriate places and closed the book.

Margo looked out the window at a hiker who was removing his pack on the path outside of the residence.  "Isn't that your friend, Pugh?" she asked.  I looked up, and sure enough, it was my old hiking friend, Bill Pugh.  Margo knew his face because she had patiently sat through far too many slide shows of earlier hiking adventures, many of which included Bill Pugh.  We dashed outside to greet him.  (Several months earlier, I had confided to Bill that Margo and I had been discussing the possibility of eloping in Hot Springs at Easter.)  He had decided to walk from Petersburg, VA, to Hot Springs to see if we were serious.  He almost made it in time to witness the ceremony!  He took one look at me in my pastel green leisure suit and gold turtleneck and said, "Get out of that green outfit and let's go hiking!"  We bid our temporary farewells to the crew at the Chapel, and headed to our motel to change into more appropriate hiking attire.  And then the five of us hiked up to Lovers Leap on the Appalachian Trail.

Father Jeff had told us that the parish wanted to celebrate our wedding with a little get-together that evening.  He suggested that we might come to the residence around 5:00 PM.  After our hike, we all got cleaned up and headed to the Chapel's residence, where we were warmly greeted by Fathers Jeff and Andrew.  

After our introductions, I wandered into the kitchen to make sure I hadn't left anything amiss the night before.  I noticed a large ham hanging in a cloth bag suspended by a string attached to a ceiling rafter.  I reached up to turn it so I could see the label when I was startled by a piercing voice, "Don't you touch that ham!"  I looked at the source of the voice.  It was a diminutive black woman standing by the sink on the other side of the kitchen.  I had not noticed her when I walked in.  "Ain't no quicker way to mess up a ham than to let white people mess with it!" she declared.  I asked her who she was and quickly learned that she was Lucille, that she had been the chief cook and house mother when the place served as an orphanage, that she was the "onliest" black person in the county (and she stayed so "they won't forget what we look like"), and that she was preparing our meal that evening.  She then kindly asked me to get out of her kitchen so she could work.  Amen!

We learned over the next few minutes that a few of the former residents of the orphanage and their spouses would be joining us for dinner, that there would be a local band (mostly made up of the former residents) hosting a dance in the rec room later in the evening, and that Pete (of Kathy and Pete, Father Jeff's relatives) would be performing a magic show in honor of our marriage!  Who knew?  We couldn't have planned a celebration like this in a million years!

As we assembled for dinner, Lucille came up to me and apologized for her abrupt words earlier.  She told me that she was not a wealthy woman ("although these Priesses have been very good to me.  They takes care of me."), but she wanted to give me and Margo something as a gift for our wedding.  She handed us a quart Mason jar full of homemade moonshine, assuring us that she had made it and that she used an all-copper still, with "no lead in it."  We were deeply moved.

There were probably twenty-five or more people at dinner, which was served buffet style and included that magnificent ham I had seen earlier.  They had opened up the social hall, which had been decorated by the locals.  The arriving guests brought mountains of additional food -- salads, casseroles, appetizers and more desserts than one could imagine.  Everyone ate to their heart's content.  After the tables were cleared, Pete set up his magic show and performed for about an hour.  He had apparently hauled his magic paraphernalia all the way from Maryland in anticipation of doing a show.  Then the band set up and people just started to arrive.  Soon the dance floor was full.  People whom we had never met were coming to our table, wishing us well, and toasting us.  It was surreal,  And all too soon, it was over.  Exhausted, we returned to our hotel and collapsed.

The next day we stopped by the church to thank everyone for such an amazing outpouring of love and hospitality.  We stayed in touch with Fathers Jeff (who died in 2011) and Andrew (who passed away in 1995) for many, years, as well as Pete and Kathy.  What started out to be a quiet elopement to a small town in North Carolina had turned into a marvelous event and a myriad of great memories.

As a footnote, I have learned that the papers of Father Andrew Graves are preserved in the Georgetown University archives.  He was a treasure and wrote extensively to friends, for the press, and in his own publications.  His papers are described thusly: "Papers documenting activities of the Jesuit mission in Madison County, North Carolina, ca 1925 to 1973. The work was centered in the towns of Hot Springs and Revere, and Fr. Graves' records amply document many aspects of a small rural Catholic community, as well as giving first-hand evidence of the Jesuit missionary enterprise in the twentieth century."

I feel blessed to have shared a brief moment in that "Jesuit missionary enterprise."

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