Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Do I Do I Do (Ch. 2)

The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding

By Thomas Kunkel

Click here for Chapter 1

October 2009

People tell me I have a gift for stating the obvious, so let me say right off: Triple weddings are not particularly common events.
Some time spent on the Web bears out this impression. Oh, you do come across occasional triple weddings, but most of them involve couples who are friends, not siblings. And a number of these are essentially stunts, like the three couples who got married together riding a Six Flags roller coaster. Maybe an apt metaphor for marriage, I guess, but not especially romantic.
I did find a Florida wedding that involved three sisters. That happened in 2003, and the novelty of it intrigued “Good Morning America” host Diane Sawyer enough that she invited the three couples onto the program to talk about it.
Yet another triple wedding with siblings—a brother and two sisters—made headlines back in 1991, but for the wrong reasons. This occurred in L.A. Newspaper reports indicated that a local gang, upset at not having been allowed into the reception, drove by the wedding party and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing one person and wounding several others.
Fortunately, I found a much happier triple wedding in the New York Times—the New York Times from 1882, that is! In truth, the Times had reprinted an account of this remarkable wedding from the Cincinnati Gazette. It told the tale of three sisters who were married on the family’s country estate along the Licking River about 20 miles south of Cincinnati. There, on November 15, 1882, the three tall, fair daughters of Squire Albert Phillips—the wonderfully named Celia, Hettie and Lucie—wed three young men from the neighboring area.
The Squire, a Civil War veteran from Ohio, owned some 800 acres of Northern Kentucky rolling hills and fields. It was a fittingly grand setting for what was clearly a festive affair, as the Gazette recounted in the florid language of that age. “One wedding in Kentucky is occasion for excess of gayety,” our enthusiastic correspondent noted. “But when a triad of maidens” is involved, he continued, “it is sufficient excuse for a triple measure of hilarity, and an occasion to be remembered for a life-time.” Without doubt!
The occasion was especially poignant because the Squire had been in unsteady health for a year and in fact for more than a month had been confined to his bed. The Phillips girls had suggested postponing the wedding, but the Squire would have none of it. “You have chosen, and chosen wisely,” he told his daughters. “I will have all my friends and neighbors about me, and give you, with my blessing, to the men of your choice.”
So it was arranged that the wedding couples took their vows on the broad porch just outside their father’s bedroom, with the floor-to-ceiling windows flung open so he could see everything as he sat up in bed like a bluegrass pasha. After the vows were exchanged, all the guests came inside from the crisp fall day for a feast featuring all the foods and hospitality one might expect of a landed gentleman who had just taken in the harvest. There were three long tables decorated with autumnal colors, one couple at the head of each. And each couple had their own wedding cake.
I particularly loved the image of the father taking all this in from the comfort of his bed. I, on the other hand, already look to be a considerably more active participant in my daughters’ triple wedding. And no one, alas, has ever called me Squire.


People are getting quite excited as they learn of the Kunkel Girls’ wedding. After the initial reaction, be it surprise or wonderment or delight or often all of the above, their questions turn immediately to logistics. Have you started reserving hotel rooms? (Yes, plenty of them.) How are they handling the wedding cake/s? (Don’t know yet.) How is Dad going to walk all three of them down the aisle? (Not sure, we’re working on it.)
Finally, they want to know—this is Green Bay, after all—is that a Packer home weekend? (We don’t know that yet, either; the NFL won’t release its schedule until next spring, and the league probably doesn’t care about triple weddings anyway.)
The questions serve as a reminder that once you get past the notion of a triple wedding, as improbable and romantic as it seems, the reality of a triple wedding quickly sets in. And the reality is that a triple wedding is basically a very long list of logistics and details—the same list you confront with a “regular” wedding, albeit on steroids. From this early vantage point, the affair seems to have taken on the feel of a military campaign—Sherman marching through Georgia, with a little less burning and pillaging and a lot more tulle. (I just wanted to use the word “tulle;” I have no idea what it is. Indeed, no dad I know does.)
Thus, the girls’ planning got under way in earnest just as soon as it was decided it would be a “triple.”
As it happened, not long after their engagements, all four daughters were in De Pere to spend a few days. Their visit had long been planned, but under the circumstances it turned from a purely social affair into a rather intense recon mission.
The first order of business was the church. Where would this mega-wedding actually take place?
As I mentioned last time, I left the University of Maryland in the summer of 2008 to become just the seventh president in the 111-year history of St. Norbert College. St. Norbert is a private, Catholic, liberal arts institution with about 2,100 students, all but about 100 of them undergraduates. It is a fine and accomplished college, and the only one in the world founded by our patrons, the Norbertine order of Catholic priests. The Norbertines are more formally the Premonstratensian Fathers, an order founded 875 years ago in Prémontré, France by St. Norbert of Xanten, a bishop and early Church reformer.
The Norbertines were for centuries a dominant order in Europe, but they are less well known in America, where they have just three abbeys (one here in De Pere) and several priories. The Norbertine priests and brothers live in community, but they are not monastic. They work out in the world in all sorts of jobs. Indeed, their three charisms are community, service to others and reflection—and those remain key values of their namesake college.
Our campus church is called Old St. Joseph—or as we all call it, Old St. Joe’s. It is situated on a pleasant bluff along the west side of the Fox River, which forms the edge of our campus. A church or chapel has been on that site since the late 17th century, the current brick building since 1890. It isn’t 50 yards from the place where the nascent college’s Main Hall would be built just a few years later.
Now Old St. Joe’s belongs to the college and it does double-duty as our chapel and a parish of the Green Bay diocese—the first college parish so designated in the United States. To formally belong to the parish, one is supposed to have some official connection to St. Norbert College. But hundreds of other people regularly attend Mass there, drawn by the convivial atmosphere, the energy of the students, and the sheer allure of the church building itself.
Old St. Joe’s true beauty actually was revealed, almost literally by accident, during a renovation in the late 1990s. Workers needed to check on the condition of the original walls long hidden beneath a plaster finish. When they removed a large patch of the plaster, they found that the underlying brick was beautiful, not the usual harsh red color but a subtle and light mottling of terra cotta shades. They took off more plaster and were amazed at the effect. Thus it was decided to remove all the plaster, and so now the church interior is exposed brick from floor to ceiling. Light comes in through tall, spired windows. And high overheard are elegant, scissors-like wooden trusses tied with black iron X-braces. The story I heard is that Old St. Joe’s once had a boat-builder for a neighbor, and logically enough he was hired to craft the trusses. Hence, it takes little imagine to look at them and see the church as a kind of inverted ark.  
 The other striking aspect of Old St. Joe’s architecture is its internal orientation. The original, conventionally arrayed pews have been removed, and in their place the church installed rows of simple, rush-seated chairs that parallel the main aisle, like the bleachers on either side of a basketball court.
The overall effect is of a sacred space that uniquely combines the warmth of the ancient with the freshness of the new.
A perfect ambience, in other words, for a triple wedding. But the girls’ big question was more pragmatic: Could it hold enough people? With three additional families and three more sets of friends coming, this triple wedding would have many more guests than any of them would have expected for an individual event. Fortunately, as they checked out the space with their mom and Fr. Sal Cuccia, a Norbertine who serves as associate pastor, the girls learned that Old St. Joe’s can seat about 425 people and still leave room for three bridal couples and enough bridesmaids and groomsmen to start a volleyball game.
They quickly agreed: Old St. Joe’s would be ideal. And I won’t deny that I was thrilled by this outcome. It would be wonderful in countless ways to have this special family occasion occur on my campus. And having lived through two Wisconsin falls now, I can already envision the kind of day we might well get next October 9, when in a bluer-than-blue sky the low afternoon sun backlights the shimmering yellows, oranges and reds of the campus foliage. But just for insurance, I’m going to see if the Norbertines will start praying on that right away.
Now that we had a venue, who would be the presider? Or I should say presiders, plural. Because the couples decided right off that for a triple wedding it would be fitting to have three celebrants. This would ensure that each couple would have their “own” priest, which in turn would help create that “specialness” within the larger ceremony that we had talked about before. And also, frankly, it would lend additional grandeur to an event that wanted to be larger than the run-of-the-mill ceremony.
Presiding with Katie and Nick will be Fr. Jay Fostner, like Sal a Norbertine who is vice president for Mission and Heritage for St. Norbert College, and thus a member of the president’s Cabinet. Jay is a great young priest whose formal education is in clinical psychology, and he has an easy, practiced rapport with St. Norbert’s students. As such, he does lots and lots of their marriages. (Katie has teased Jay that he essentially has two goals in this complicated wedding. First, make sure that the brides all marry the right groom. Second, make sure they marry just one groom.)
Fr. Sal will preside with Claire and Sam. Sal is a true character—a droll, wisecracking, call-it-like-it-is kind of guy—basically, what you might get if you crossed a leprechaun with Frank Sinatra. Claire has been enamored of Sal since the Sunday she was visiting and attended Mass with us and Sal was blessing the congregation with a sprinkling of water. Usually this is done with a small appliance (officially known as an aspergillum) that looks a bit like a handheld microphone. Or sometimes, especially in the Lenten season, palm leaves are used. Either way, the idea is for the priest to send forth the water in a gentle sprinkle over the people. Sal, instead, was dipping a large, hydra-headed kind of implement into a bowl of water and then firing torrents at his near-cowering but bemused congregation.
 Claire leaned over to me. “That looks like a toilet-bowl cleaner,” she said.
“That’s because it is,” I said. That’s Sal in a nutshell.
Overseeing the vows for Helen and Mike is Fr. Tim Klosterman, a young priest who is a good friend of Mike’s. Fr. Klosterman—or T.K., as the kids know him—was just ordained in 2008 and he is now on the pastoral staff at St. Monica parish in Los Angeles. They got to know one another when Mike was 14 and a junior lifeguard at a city pool in his hometown of Palmdale, Calif., and T.K. was a senior lifeguard. They became good friends, and in fact Mike credits discussions with T.K. in sparking his own spirituality and eventual adoption of Catholicism. So Helen and Mike are thrilled that Fr. Tim is going to be able to fly out and preside over their part of the triple wedding. I haven’t met him yet, but as far as I’m concerned anyone whose initials are T.K. must be all right.


With the church venue squared away and the presiders decided, the next big issue involved an appropriate reception site. The girls checked out several possible sites, including a beautiful country club and the campus’ own formal dining room. But figuring they will likely be filling all 425 of those church seats, the girls knew they needed to be able to accommodate a like number of guests for a dinner reception, and few of the venues they checked out, short of securing Lambeau Field, could do that.
It was my chief of staff, Amy Sorenson, who provided the solution—and it was literally right under our collective noses.
What about the caf? Amy suggested.
The college cafeteria is in St. Norbert’s Sensenbrenner Union building, and frankly we hadn’t given it much thought for this. I mean, it’s an excellent cafeteria, but it is a cafeteria, and one whose design unquestionably affixes it as a product of the ‘70s—not exactly the acme of cafeteria styling, if you know what I mean. It had nothing of the Martha Stewart Brides vibe that young women are looking for as they plan their big day. But Amy knew from personal experience (her own daughter’s wedding a few years ago) that the cafeteria, with enough time, imagination, candles and tulle (!!!), could be transformed into something genuinely lovely. Significantly, it can easily handle 425 diners and still have room for a decent dancing floor. (Hmmm, I really must inquire about those waltz lessons.) Beyond that is the incredible convenience: our guests would have all of a two-minute stroll across the leafy campus after the wedding, and there’s a wonderful terrace where we could have a pre-reception, um, reception as folks awaited the brides and grooms.
Besides, October 9 would fall on our campus’ annual “long weekend,” where students head home for a four-day break. So the cafeteria would be available for the girls to decorate to their hearts’ content. Done deal.
Oh, and I almost forgot: The other great thing about having the reception on campus is that our dining staff would be preparing the food. Now, if “college food” makes you think of Hamburger Helper and lumpy milk, you’ve obviously never eaten at St. Norbert College. The Norbertines have a nearly millennium-long tradition of providing “radical hospitality” to their guests, and that has translated into food service on this campus that is second to none. We don’t “outsource” our food service to one of those faceless corporations with names like semiconductor manufacturers. We have our own chefs and kitchens staffs, and by God their mommas taught them how to cook a proper meal.
The girls knew this already from personal experience, but no dummies, they figured this would be a great opportunity to get free samples to “be sure.” So the St. Norbert chefs prepared for them a lavish sampler with a range of possible entrees, with the wines to match. (I figured this was a crucial enough decision that I needed to break away from my own pressing business and offer an additional opinion.) Suffice it to say everything was wonderful. In the end, the girls decided that their guests will have a choice of salmon, el Pollo Norberto (that would be fancy chicken) or a vegetarian pasta. As I say, no one will be whining about the food. For half a century the Green Bay Packers’ football team has stayed at St. Norbert during its summer training camp, and there is one simple reason why: The Packers love the food. Can’t get enough of it. And if it’s good enough for pro football players, believe me, it will be good enough for you.
Since the girls were in town anyway, they thought it would be fun to swing by some of the local bridal shops to look at dresses. I don’t know whether they seriously expected to find what they were looking for—or even if they knew what they were looking for—but at a shop called Elaine’s in the neighboring village of Ashwaubenon (that’s Ash-WOB-a-non for you non-Cheeseheads) all three girls found the “perfect” dress for them. As someone who blanches at the mere overhearing of the prices for designer dresses on those terrifying “bridezilla” cable TV shows, I was thrilled to learn that the girls were ordering gowns for “very reasonable prices,” or so I was told. I say "so I was told" because I, of course, wasn’t permitted within a quarter mile of any of this activity, and in fact I cannot describe the dresses to you because no one will tell me what they look like. Other than “they’re beautiful,” which I’m sure is true. I mean, they’ll be on my daughters. How could they not be?
I am also pleased that most of this wedding outlay will be staying in the greater Green Bay economy. Nonetheless, and despite the bargains they are driving, the girls have been in town just four days and I’m already feeling like a one-man Stimulus Package.
And there’s still the matter of the photographer—or photographers, that is—and the flowers and the entertainment and the honeymoons. And maybe a chartered bus from our hometown in Evansville. And the hotels! My God, the hotels! Debbie is booking so many hotel rooms that I think I just saw Priceline’s William Shatner pull up in the driveway.
I will talk more about this in a later installment, but older sisters Kate and Claire are happy to have Helen be the designated planner for the bridal team. So she has partnered with her mom for the majority of the logistical work. I know Deb’s “wedding planning book” is already about as corpulent as a Spiegel catalog, and I suspect Helen’s is too.
On this last point, there’s one other thing everyone says when they hear about the triple wedding. That is to point out that Deb and I must be pleased because we’re saving so much money due to all the economies of scale—one reception, not three; one band, not three; one mother’s dress, not three; and so on.
It’s a nice thought. I wish it were true.
The deal we made with the girls at the start—back at the stage where we all assumed they would have individual weddings; it already seems so long ago—was that we would give each couple a fixed amount of money for their wedding. It was a significant sum, enough to do a full, perfectly lovely wedding, but not enough to get crazy with. And further, our deal was that if they went with a smaller, more frugal wedding, they got to pocket the difference. On the other hand, if they wanted a more lavish wedding, that was fine too, but they would have to cover any overage themselves. It was my idea, that, and ordinarily the kids regard my ideas with TSA-like suspicion, and on occasion even disdain. But in fact they all thought this arrangement was eminently fair.
With the triple wedding, each couple is still getting the same amount of money. But now they are pooling their resources. They aren’t skimping, mind you, but in one way above all they are definitely their mother’s daughters—they are all frugal in the extreme. They can pinch a penny until old Abe squeals.
Which is to say they should all make out very, very well on this deal.

NEXT: The Proposals.

Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin


  1. Highly entertaining description of the journey, Tom. It's like you've done some writing before, or something. :)

  2. As one of four daughters,(there's a brother,too) I always thought this would be my fairy tale wedding. Thirty years after a single wedding that was very special and fun, this is a treat to read and enjoy vicariously! Thank you so much for sharing your story. St. Norbert is a beautiful spot -- October on the campus is incredible. Enjoy!

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