By Yadira Betances
HAVERHILL — Family and friends cheered and cameras flashed as the bride walked down the aisle in the arms of her new husband at Sacred Hearts Church yesterday.
For generations, this was the idyllic example of a marriage.
But the wedding of Kaitlin Barry and David Pellerin of Groveland is fast becoming more the exception than the rule. They are bucking the trend in the Catholic church, where fewer couples are going to the altar to say "I do."
According to statistics from the Archdiocese of Boston, only 3,727 couples were married in Catholic churches last year, less than half the 8,343 marriages celebrated in 2000. Across the border in New Hampshire, figures from past years weren't immediately available, but church officials said the 403 weddings celebrated last year in the Diocese of Manchester also represented a steep decline.
The Rev. David Costello, deacon at St. Mary and Joseph Parish in Salem, remembers officiating as many as 18 weddings a year when he first became a deacon 26 years ago. Today, the number is less than five annually.
"I feel very concerned," he said.
The decrease in weddings has become such a concern that the four bishops of Massachusetts have called for a campaign called "The Future Depends on Love," the goal of which is to educate Catholics about marriage and in turn have them explain its importance to the community.
Local Catholic priests said there are numerous reasons for the decline — including the growing popularity of "destination weddings," higher numbers of unwed couples living together, and the fact that there are fewer practicing Catholics than in the past. Many longtime Catholics were driven out by the priest abuse scandal, and the younger generation just isn't producing as many churchgoers.
The Rev. Dennis Nason, pastor at All Saints Parish in Haverhill, said the church is just not relevant for many people today.
"They don't go to church, so it doesn't have any meaning to them," he said. "I feel sad about it. When they marry in the church, having a relationship with God is going to help them in their marriage and when everything is not coming up roses."
Catholic law requires couples to marry in the church, unlike other denominations, where ministers can officiate at weddings at the beach, in the gazebo at a park, or a reception hall.
Couples need special permission from the bishop in order to have a priest or deacon officiate at a wedding outside the church.
"It's a sacrament you have to have in the church not because of the physical building itself, but for the support of the community of believers that have the same values as you," Costello said.
When getting married in the Catholic church, couples must contact a priest at least six months before the ceremony. They go through a program called "Pre-Cana," where they learn about the sacrament of marriage and their future lives together.
The first meeting is with the priest, with subsequent sessions with people who have been married for many years who talk about their experiences with the engaged couple. Other classes include finances and parenting.
Barry and Pellerin were glad they attended the marriage classes at the Franciscan Center in Andover.
"We thought we knew it all because we have been together for so long, but it wasn't so," Pellerin said.
Protestant churches also see decrease
The trend may be most dramatic in the Catholic church, but it is not the only religious institution that has seen a dwindling number of weddings.
In the 10 months that Rev. Andrew Gilman has served as interim pastor at First Congregational Church in Salem, he has yet to officiate one wedding.
"I'm sad about it," said Gilman, a minister for 38 years.
He takes the decline personally.
"It reflects a failure in my part to make (the church) as relevant as it should be," Gilman said. "There are a lot of people who don't see the point of going to church, and we have not made our case why this is important. We need to be clearer in explaining why it's important to be in community."
While the Catholic and Protestant denominations are seeing fewer couples tying the knot at church, weddings at Jewish synagogues have remained steady.
Rabbi Robert Goldstein, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Andover, said among Jews, weddings are still very traditional.
"I find that kids want to come home," he said, referring to couples getting married either in the temple or in a ceremony officiated by a rabbi under the chuppah.
He has been in Andover for 20 years now, and is celebrating the weddings of members who were in their teens then.
"Jewish weddings have wonderful traditions which speak to people, like the chuppah (canopy) representing the home, the breaking of the glass, and the marriage contract, which is the sentiment of the couple," Goldstein said.
Some of the blame for the decline in church weddings can be pinned on the "destination wedding" trend, said Jill Owens, who has worked at Rite Way Travel in Methuen for 23 years.
The fad started with second marriages, but has spread to first time couples of all ages.
"It's getting bigger and bigger every year, because it's cost effective and people say, 'My friend did it and my sister did it, so I want to do it,'" Owens said.
She said couples pay for their own airfare and the wedding, while their guests pay for their own travel and lodging.
"They're huge, first because of the price, and second because of the background," Owens said. "You have the sand and the sunset behind you."
Other couples are forgoing traditional church weddings so they can have the ceremony and reception in one venue.
"What I hear most is that they want the convenience, not just for themselves to calm their own anxieties and nerves, but what's going to be enjoyable for the guests," said Nicolette Burns, wedding sales manager at Atkinson Resort & Country Club.
The country club offers a gazebo area surrounded by cascading waterfalls, manicured landscaping and a koi pond, and a trellis area highlighted with winding cobblestone pathways, stone walls and an array of flowers, trees and shrubbery overlooking a pond and the rolling fairways.
On average, more than 100 weddings are held at the country club annually, and half of the rites are celebrated on site.
"For a lot of them, it's not that they don't have a faith in God so much as that they don't have that connection or obligation," Burns said. "It's more that they want to make it their own, something different from what their parents did."
Of course, there are exceptions. Barry and Pellerin celebrated their reception at the Atkinson Resort & Country Club after their ceremony yesterday at Sacred Hearts.
"It wasn't an issue for us," said Barry during the rehearsal on Friday night. "We're both Catholic, and we never thought of doing anything else."
Nason said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I still get calls from couples who have been married (in a civil ceremony) for two years then have second thoughts and have church wedding with a full ceremony," he said. "Often times it resurfaces when their children are baptized."