When Susana Ambrosio walked down the aisle of the San Gabriel Mission Church, adorned in a white, sequined gown as the crowd sang and clapped along to “Vienen Con Alegria,” (“We Come With Joy”), it had been three decades in the making.

Ambrosio and her partner, Victor, had been together for 30 years and were the parents of three children, but never got married in the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until last year, when their adult son, Jose, felt a calling for vocational discernment that the couple began to renew their own faith, which for them, started with saying their wedding vows.

So on November 24 the Ambrosios got married in a “boda comunitaria” (“communal wedding”), alongside six other couples who, like them, looked to the ceremony not as the beginning of a life together, but as a long-awaited blessing on their union that would let them fully participate in the life of the Church — and most importantly, to receive the Eucharist.

 “I feel so happy,” Ambrosio said after her wedding ceremony. “I came here because of Christ’s love and knowing that his love revolves around our family.”

Father Ray Smith, associate pastor of San Gabriel Mission Church, said the idea for the “boda comunitaria” began about nine months ago when Jose Ambrosio, who he had been working with on his discerning a vocation, asked him for help on behalf of his parents.

“Out of nowhere, I told him, ‘Father, my mom and dad did a retreat and he proposed to her,’ ” Ambrosio recalled. “And Father Ray said, ‘Let’s get them married.’ And I said, ‘Really, it’s that easy?’ And in less than two weeks they started their preparations.”

Once Father Smith agreed to help the Ambrosios make arrangements for a wedding, they told him about another couple in a similar situation that also wanted to get married. Soon, more couples — most of them had been cohabitating for decades and had children together — were approaching him. 

Many of them had put off getting married because the cost of a wedding was prohibitive, said Smith, while for others, the shame of not being married already — before they had children — had kept them from pursuing it.

So Smith had a different approach — a “boda comunitaria.” 

“When they come to me, I say, ‘Don’t be afraid of the money, don’t be afraid of the shame of it,’ ” he said. Group weddings, he added, have been held in the archdiocese before, but aren’t common.

Having seven couples marry at once offsets the cost of a wedding. The church offered the venue, cake, and champagne, and several church groups provided music, entertainment, and various dishes at the reception. The couples split the remaining costs. 

Normally, a wedding at San Gabriel Mission Church and a reception for 300 people — the number in attendance on November 24 — would cost a minimum of $11,000, Smith said.

The group wedding also let Smith tailor the premarital counseling curriculum to the couples’ specific life circumstances. So instead of having the couples discuss if they’re open to the possibility of having children — “they already proved that,” he said — he talked to them about the place children have in a marriage. 

And for the handful of individuals who hadn’t yet received their First Communion, he had them also make extra preparations so they could take the Eucharist in time for the wedding. In one week, three of them went to confession, received First Communion, and were wedded, he said.

Susana Ambrosio and husband Victor walk down the aisle as a newly-married couple. (ALBERTO ALARCON)

Laura Flores, one of the brides, said she and her partner of 27 years, Esteban Bustamante, had been thinking about marriage for 25 years. But when she became pregnant with her first child, she said, she didn’t think it would be acceptable to get married in the Church.

“That’s what kept me away,” she said.

But after going on a spiritual retreat, she said that she and Bustamante “got to know God” and decided to set a good example for their four children by getting married.

“It gave us the strength for this moment,” she said. “I’m happy but nervous.”

Yolanda and Freddie Torralba also said that family was one of their main motivations. The couple had been together for 35 years and have two children, but after the birth of their first grandchild seven months ago, they started thinking about getting married.

For Marina Santiago, marriage meant finally being able to receive the Eucharist.

“It was time for us to do the sacrament so that God is in our family,” said Santiago, a mother of five who has been with her partner for 35 years. “I decided to not live in sin anymore. Now I can take Holy Communion and the blood of Christ.”

“This is what I most desire,” she said.

Smith said the Eucharist was important for all the couples. When he offered communion to one of the brides at the wedding, she started weeping and fell to the floor, he said.

“It took everything within me to keep going because I know how great this is for her,” he said. “For me, that was one of the pieces where I see the power of God and he’s coming back into their lives, and what that means just overwhelms them.”

For Smith, this work is also part of his own spiritual tradition.

St. Anthony Mary Claret, founder of the Congregation of Missionaries, Sons of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Claretian Missionaries) — which staffs the San Gabriel Mission Church — made it a priority during his service in Cuba to marry couples that had been cohabitating, he said, and he wanted to continue this idea.

So Smith plans to continue hosting “boda comunitarias,” with the next one scheduled for May.

During the reception, Smith said that several families approached him, offering to contribute to a future group wedding, while others asked about getting married.

“My hope was with all these couples, that they will go out and help find others who were like them and bring them into the full life of the Church,” he said.

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is an award-winning reporter and graduate of Harvard Divinity School whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBCNews.com, Religion News Service and other publications.

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