More couples say ‘I do’ in courthouse

Leslie Patton by Leslie Patton

The Cook County Marriage Court feels more like a doctor’s office waiting room than a setting to exchange sacred vows. Nearly hidden in the basement of a downtown Chicago courthouse, the lobby is dark and drab, accented only with a few fake plants in shiny gold pots. Four small heart decals are peeling off of the glass door.

In Cook County, more people are saying “I do” in civil ceremonies, rather than religious ones, in 2009 than in years past. Through June 8, 64 percent of all Cook County nuptials have been civil, compared with 53 percent in 2008 and 52 percent the year before.

The decision to marry in the courthouse is the result of two things, according to David Popenoe, founder and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. “Basically the nation is becoming more and more secular and there are fewer members of the church,” he said. Also, “civil marriage is usually cheaper.”

Adding to his numbers, he said, is the fact that 40 percent of all marriages in the U.S. are the second-time unions for either the bride or the groom, which “tend not to be as church-based.”

Virginia Austin and Antonio Rodriguez, now married, met at a birthday party two years ago (Leslie Patton/News21).

Virginia Austin and Antonio Rodriguez, now married, met at a birthday party two years ago (Leslie Patton/News21).

The marriage court performs about 20 ceremonies per day, said Joan Helie, a clerk in the courthouse. Here, no witness is needed, although most do bring in friends or family.

“Once in a while, she adds, “the groom will say he has to go out and then not come back.”

Mandi and Marcus Smith, 26 and 25 years old, respectively, tied the knot Wednesday, bringing along their three children, as well as Mandi’s mother and a friend to take photographs. Mandi was dressed in a long black dress and Marcus wore a black shirt and shorts.

The couple, who has been together for six years, decided to wed in the courthouse, figuring it would be something simple and quick, close to their house, and low stress.

“Feeling good,” Mandi said before the ceremony. “A little nervous.”

When the family emerged from the judge’s chambers – all of about two minutes after being called in as “Smith party” – Mandi’s mother was crying. “I’m thrilled, she loves him,” she said. The Smiths will celebrate with a backyard barbeque Saturday.

(Leslie Patton/News21)

(Leslie Patton/News21)

Another couple, who asked that their names not be used, married Wednesday at the courthouse met on an online dating site barely three months ago. “It’s just one of these things, you know,” said the bride, a 27-year-old cost analyst from Chicago. “I’m excited, nervous, all of the above.”

The groom, a 31-year-old physician, emigrated from Syria about five years ago for medical school. The two said they wanted their wedding to be “very simple” and planned to grab a coffee together after being officially married.

Simple it was. And cheap, a large factor in why Martin DaCosta and Sylvia Matelski, both 20, were married Friday in the courthouse. The couple, who shelled out just $10 for the court wedding, wanted to save for a big church ceremony in two years. “I didn’t like how it was in the basement tucked away,” said Matelski, who wore a white lace dress with a navy sash, “but the judge made it more special…He took pictures for us.”

Sylvia Matelski and Martin DaCosta were married Friday, July 17 in the Cook County Courthouse (Leslie Patton/News21).

Sylvia Matelski and Martin DaCosta were married in the courthouse July 17 (Leslie Patton/News21).

“We were both nervous,” added Matelski, a student in early childhood education at Morton College in Cicero, a suburb southwest of Chicago. She asked her husband where he was on a scale from one to 10 of “freaking out.” Casually, DaCosta replied, “Three.”

The couples interviewed for this story chose to stick with the “suggested wedding ceremony” script provided by the courthouse.

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