The Wedding Priest

Author: Tara Hunt ’12

Father Joe Carey, CSC, weaves his white, wide-handled glider across the Notre Dame campus and parks it in front of Legends. There, the hostess knows to congratulate any couple with whom he dines, for chances are that they are there to prepare for their upcoming nuptials. His reputation in the University community as the Wedding Priest is well-earned — in his 44 years as a Holy Cross priest, Carey has celebrated nearly 500 weddings, the first of which occurred 14 days after his ordination in April 1969.

Photo courtesy of Marisa Peterson, photo by Josef Samuel

Perhaps more remarkable than the quantity of weddings is the quality. Carey ’62 begins by taking each couple to lunch, though he often already knows them quite well. There, the conversation is comfortable and flowing. He asks them, “What attracted you to one another? When did you know you wanted to marry that person?” And he wants to know about the proposal story.

“I ask about [the proposal] because it’s a time in your relationship where you are so intentional about what you’re doing. If you remember the story, it prevents a relationship from getting stale,” he says. “Love is about creating those moments.”

And he’s heard some doozies. There was a gentleman who got down on one knee but forgot the engagement ring. When he and his fiancée re-entered his family’s beach house, the family assumed she had said no because she wasn’t wearing it.

Or there was another man who dropped the ring box out of his pocket, so he had to propose where they were standing — which happened to be a Notre Dame parking lot.

Or the gentleman who met his bride at a tailgate before a Notre Dame-Tennessee game and, when it was time to propose, tracked down a program from that game. “How much effort he put into that, that’s what’s beautiful about it,” Carey says.

From that initial lunch and subsequent meetings, the priest from Michigan gleans facts and stories about the couple so he can create a unique homily. Yes, a brand new, expertly tailored homily for each of his 500 weddings.

For years Carey has been using this informal introduction to the premarital counseling Catholics must undergo. At one time he took his couples to Rocco’s restaurant, says Jeff Kohler ’79, who once served as a resident assistant under Carey and who was married at Notre Dame in 1981.

“The benefit to a Pre-Cana [that way] is that we were relaxed and comfortable,” Kohler says. “We were honest — honest with one another and honest with Father Joe. It felt more like a conversation than an interview.”

From one of those introductory lunches Carey learned that a bride-to-be was a professional flutist with a $17,000 flute, so he used her musical interests to craft a homily about how a marriage, much like good music, requires harmony.

Another bride, Marisa McCafferty Peterson ’11, told him her uncle had been a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame and had died young.

“As the wedding approached, Marisa wrote me an email and said that her grandmother said that her uncle’s chalice was in the Basilica, and could we use it for her wedding. I said, ‘Certainly, that would really stand out and be special,’” Carey says. In his homily he made sure to address the connection the family had to the place:

Notre Dame is a very special place for Marisa and Jack because they met while they were students here. We have come together in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart because it is at the heart and soul of our faith life. It is sacred ground where we have gathered. The McCafferty family has a very special relationship with it because this is where Marisa’s uncle was ordained and his funeral was held. We are using Father Mike’s chalice for this wedding so we know that he is looking down from heaven and blessing this marriage of Marisa and Jack.

The many weddings of Father Joe Carey, CSC

At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where Carey does most of his weddings, that kind of personalization is important, says Janet Hankins, a wedding coordinator there. Though the Basilica is available to host 134 weddings per year and has been called a “wedding factory,” turning out up to four services on some Saturdays, the wedding coordinators try to make the bride feel like it is her day and her day only, Hankins says.

“I always tell my couples, ‘Once I know exactly what you want, you don’t have to worry about a thing because I’ll make it happen,’” Hankins says.

The staff has wedding planning down to a science. The rules are rigid, Hankins says: Brides must come dressed; couples retain the Basilica for no more than a half-hour before the wedding and a half-hour after; no photographers in the choir loft; no rice, seeds, bubbles or balloons can be released by the attendees. Also, registration for the following calendar year begins on the first Monday in March, frequently referred to as Basilica Monday. From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on that day, there is only one person on one phone line to register weddings. The couples, and often enlisted family members, must keep calling until they get through to reserve a date and time. And sometimes a little incentive can encourage friends to partake in the tedious process as well: Last spring, Katharine Folger ’12 and Ryan Kavanagh ’12 offered a Kindle to whoever could book their 2013 wedding. After an hour of hitting redial, groomsman Michael Payne ’12 scheduled the event and took home the prize. Even when a lucky individual does get through, there is an $800 price tag to reserve the Basilica plus a suggested $200 for the priest and $200 per musician.

But Notre Dame is a spiritual site that taps into the roots and heart of many of the couples, Hankins and Carey agree. “Destination weddings are a popular thing, but to come to Notre Dame, which has so much meaning usually to both of them who went here, it brings it back into something more real, into the spiritual side. It’s what Notre Dame does,” Carey says. “We’re in a sacred space and on sacred ground. This isn’t a beach in Hawaii. A wedding here makes it so very special and so spiritual.”

Once the Basilica wedding is set, the race for commercial resources begins: photographers, florists, DJs, hair salons and reception venues. Locations such as the Morris Performing Arts Center, the Inn at Saint Mary’s, South Dining Hall and Club Naimoli at the Purcell Pavilion are popular. The re-opening of the Morris Inn in August will provide a new on-campus option that will feature a ballroom which can accommodate around 300 guests.

“One of the things I say to all couples is if the DJ doesn’t show up for your reception, if the food is terrible at your reception, if it’s raining and it’s a horrible day here, if that occurs, the most important part is that the two of them show up, their two witnesses show up and I’m there, that’s all that matters,” Carey says, acknowledging the real meaning of the sacrament. “I always tell them to expect something will go wrong.”

Occasionally, the wedding-vet contributes to the wrong. For a wedding in Oklahoma City he lost his voice the night before, but after several cups of tea and honey he got it back just in time for the ceremony. For another, he introduced the bride as Rebecca, although her name was Rachel. But in his homily he quickly poked fun at his mistake and said, “Rachel, today we’re going to ask you to change your last name, not your first.”

Other nuptials are more serious, he says. “At this one wedding the father of the bride had Alzheimer’s and was in a wheelchair, and they were really worried whether he would even know what was happening. That day of the wedding he was so alert and it was one of his best days in a long time,” he recounts. “[The bride] walked up the aisle by herself and when she got to him he stood up and hugged her and held onto her. It was a pretty emotional wedding.

“You see the love that parents have for their sons and daughters. That’s the other thing that always strikes me at a wedding. It renews a whole family sometimes.”

Carey’s profound reverence for love is fundamental to his ministry and his being. “The most important question in our lives,” he says, “is asked by God: ‘Did you love?’”

Photo by Matt Cashore '94

He explains that in our lives, we all experience and give many types of love, only one of which is marriage. For that very reason he offers couples the option to choose readings that may not typically be associated with weddings. Take the Gospel about the washing of the feet, he says: It is a symbol of service and humility in love. Or the story of the prodigal son, a sign of supreme forgiveness. Or the Samaritan woman at the well, which speaks of unconditional love despite a recognition of someone else’s flaws. They aren’t wedding stories, but they teach lessons that should be incorporated into a marriage, he says.

But what does a 73-year-old priest know about love and marriage? Carey says he was aware of his vocation late in high school but his parents insisted he get a college degree first. While at Notre Dame pursuing his accounting major he dated some, but became certain he wanted to enter the seminary. “Some people are called to love a lot of people and some people are called to love one,” he explains, and loving many is what he believes God has called him to do. If the number of people who have asked him to perform their weddings is any indication, he seems to be succeeding.

“What I try to do is to help people connect their lives to the Gospel, which connects them to Christ,” Carey says. “I like doing weddings because I think that for the future of the Church, having young adults participate in the life of the Church is essential. That’s a group of people who leave college and some stop doing anything and don’t consider themselves anti-church or Catholic, but I don’t think that they feel connected. I see marriage as a way of connecting people again to the Church.”

He keeps young people in the Church in other ways, too. When he moved into Ryan Hall as priest-in-residence after years in Dillon and Pasquerilla West, Carey found himself with a full-sized kitchen and decided he would learn to bake so he could host socials for the residents. Now, every Tuesday his room fills with young women from the dorm who come to eat the stacks of cookies, cupcakes and other treats he provides, but also to seek advice and conversation. Then, on Wednesdays, he blogs about the evenings, the girls in the dorm, or advice and prayers he has for that week. He also tweets bits of wisdom on Twitter as @PadreFJ.

Meanwhile, he is the chaplain of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), ministering to yet another group of young Christians. He also serves as a spiritual director to students, faculty and staff of all ages who request his services.

He does his share of baptisms and funerals, too. After Kohler’s wedding in 1981, Carey went on to baptize two of Kohler’s four daughters, attended tailgates with the family as the girls grew up, and formed a friendship with Kohler’s second daughter, Katie, when she began at Saint Mary’s. This June, he presided over her marriage to John Dalhoff ’09, his fourth parent-child wedding duo.

“The fact that my daughter Katie is getting married by Father Joe, I can’t express how much that means to our family,” Kohler says. “He became a family friend when he got involved in the significant milestones in our life.”

“It wasn’t a matter of if it would be Father Joe. It was a matter of if he would be available,” Katie Kohler adds.

Because of his busy schedule, it’s not unusual for people to set their date around his openings, Carey says, citing a December 2013 wedding in Maryland which the couple rearranged to ensure his presence. But he makes himself as available as possible — to students from the dorms, former residents, ACE graduates, even someone he met at the gym, as well as their siblings, cousins and children, regardless of how well he knows them. He will even agree to do more than one wedding in a day; he once did three in one weekend.

Now past retirement age and with nearly 35 years of service to the University in such departments as Financial Aid, Campus Ministry, the Career Center and Moreau Seminary, Carey could sit back, but he insists he wouldn’t be happy that way. Instead he finds himself taking on more and more. He also jokes that for someone who has spent his life hating travel, he now finds himself regularly in airports, flying to ACE retreats, weddings or visiting alums who call on him, all part of his ministry to people he loves and people who love him.

“For all the adjectives, and there’s many, he’s a very consistent man, a consistent friend, a consistent priest,” says Jeff Kohler. “Our priests know us as students. They know us at a spiritual level [as someone] who they’re ministering to. Then they know us as friends.”

It’s true that at Notre Dame relationships naturally form between the Holy Cross priests and the students, so Carey isn’t the only one tallying hundreds of weddings. What stands out about the priest who has 22 weddings already slated for the next two years is how much he loves it.

Tara Hunt is an associate editor of this magazine.


Select photos by Josef Samuel.