Couple chooses to wed during Sunday liturgy at Transfiguration parish

| July 17, 2018 | 0 Comments
Berkebile Wedding at Vigil Mass

Justin and Gretchen Berkebile kneel as Father John Paul Erickson elevates the Eucharist during 5 p.m. Mass July 14 at Transfiguration in Oakdale. Gretchen, a staff member at Transfiguration, wanted the wedding to take place during a Sunday liturgy so that the parish community could participate. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Gretchen Berkebile was just days away from her scheduled wedding July 14 at Transfiguration in Oakdale, and her joy was evident as she talked about the details of a ceremony that was to take place during the parish’s regularly scheduled 5 p.m. Saturday Mass — an unusual move, but one the Church allows.

Her choice to wed during an “anticipatory” or vigil Mass was rooted in nearly six years as Transfiguration’s director of parish life, which included planning and coordinating countless liturgies. Including the broader parish community seemed only fitting to Berkebile, whose maiden name was Sonnen.

As she described the excitement of her anticipated nuptials, however, her smile disappeared momentarily and tears began to flow as she thought of the presider who wouldn’t be there that day. In December 2017, she had approached Father William Baer, then-pastor of Transfiguration, about witnessing her vows to fiancé Justin Berkebile.

After eagerly agreeing, Father Baer died unexpectedly at the parish rectory Jan. 14. He was found by staff members when he didn’t show up for 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

Berkebile was devastated.

“I never cried so much in my whole life,” she said, after receiving the call within an hour after Father Baer was found. In fact, every day she drove to work that week, she was “sobbing the whole way in.”

The grief still lingers, but a touching moment at Father Baer’s visitation at the church Jan. 22 brought comfort and helped her stay the course of her original plan, with the new pastor of Transfiguration, Father John Paul Erickson, agreeing to celebrate the Mass.

“It was a full open casket, and [Father Baer] was dressed in his gold vestments.” Berkebile, 33, recalled. “The last moment that I had with him before they closed the casket, I touched his arm and I just prayed that he would … pray for us, pray that our marriage would be blessed, pray that we would be blessed with children and with a long life together.”

Father Baer, whom Berkebile now calls their “greatest intercessor,” had a tangible presence at the July 14 Mass where the couple exchanged vows. He was remembered in the prayers of petition, and his youngest sister, Teresa McDermott, flew in from Maryland to attend the wedding. She is the youngest of his five siblings, all of whom received invitations.

“We’re so thankful that Gretchen and Justin invited us,” McDermott said.

“I just want, in some small way, to represent Bill’s love and support for them as they begin their new life together. … This parish, especially his staff members, they’ve really become our family. And, as much as Bill loved his Minnesota family, they’re always going to be in our hearts, to all of us Baers, for the rest of our lives.”

For those who may find it unusual for wedding vows to take place during a regular Sunday liturgy, Father Erickson offered perspective based on his 10 years as director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Office of Worship. Part of the role he had before beginning his assignment at Transfiguration July 1 was addressing issues like this.

Berkebile wedding

Gretchen and Justin Berkebile pose for a picture with Teresa McDermott, sister of Father Bill Baer, Transfiguration’s previous pastor who died Jan. 14. He had originally agreed to celebrate the wedding Mass. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

“Marriage is a public sacrament, and as such, it really is a celebration not just of the couple — and, in fact, not primarily the couple,” Father Erickson explained. “It’s a celebration of Christ’s relationship with his Church, and that is something which we are all called to enter into, it’s something we’re all called to celebrate.”

“So, I think it’s great [to have nuptials during a Sunday Mass],” he added. “I’m hoping that this might inspire more folks to go down that road.”

Parishioners embraced the wedding and the new husband and wife, cheering robustly after the couple was announced at the end of Mass.

“I thought it was a very, very beautiful ceremony,” said parishioner Tom Yost, who sat in his regular pew for the evening Mass, which he attends weekly with his wife, Jean. “I haven’t been to a wedding in quite some time, so this, coupled with a Mass, I thought was really, really good. I really liked it.”

“It’s quite an extravaganza; it’s wonderful,” Jean said. “This is the first time I’ve seen and heard [of] this done, and I’m glad to be here. It makes me wonder why more Catholics don’t do this, too.”

After Mass, the congregation went to the gym, where a Minnesota State Fair-themed wedding reception awaited, complete with popular fair food, including cheese curds, corn dogs and even Sweet Martha’s Cookies.

“’Sweet Martha’ is my cousin, and she donated cookies for my reception,” Berkebile said, “She said, ‘They’re on the house because you’re family.’ She’s wonderful.”

It was not hard for Berkebile to come up with a theme for the reception. A wedding date just more than a month before the fair, combined with her passion for the Great Minnesota Get-Together, made it an easy choice.

“I’m greatly devoted to the Minnesota State Fair; Jesus first, State Fair second” she said, jokingly. “I went seven times last year. I wanted [the reception] to be more of a festival or fair.”

Of course, she had to make sure to have her favorite fair food — fried pickles. Justin doesn’t like pickles, but that didn’t stop her from taking him outside to the food truck serving the reception. She already knew he was the kind of man who would help her indulge in her favorite State Fair food..

She also knows that Father Baer would have joined in on the fun, too, just as he had done so many times during his seven years as pastor at Transfiguration.

“He would love it,” she said. “He would love the big party… . He would have thought that this is just the greatest thing.”

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