Military weddings at the US Naval Academy chapel honor history and tradition
By LILLY PRICE | The Capital | Published: February 28, 2020
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — The days of thumbing through wedding magazines, visiting florists and employing relatives to plan a wedding have phased out of practice. The style, planning and cost of weddings have evolved in recent years with couples often forgoing traditions in exchange for a more personalized touch on their big day.
But for the hundreds of military couples who wed at the Naval Academy chapel every year, deeply rooted history and traditions are partly why they come.
Military nuptials are special in the way they simultaneously welcome couples to military and married life, Annapolis wedding coordinators and planners say. To tie the knot at the Naval Academy Chapel, at least one person in a couple must be an alumnus, a staff member or an active-duty military member assigned to the Annapolis area.
Military weddings also have the added layer of upholding longstanding traditions, like having friends form a sword arch, cutting the cake with a sword, wearing formal service uniforms and, of course, getting married in the picturesque chapel on academy grounds.
“There’s really nothing else like it,” said Jennifer Nyland, lead wedding and event planner at 2 Hand Studios, one of the academy-approved event planners. “There are other churches in the Annapolis area but nothing that quite holds a candle to how spectacular the academy and the chapel is.”
A 2019 WeddingWire study found the average cost of a ceremony and reception was $29,200 in 2018. Around 115 to 150 couples get married at the chapel every year, where they can secure a chapel ceremony for $1,000. Among the options of where to have a reception party at the Yard are the Naval Academy club, the Sailing Center and Alumni Hall.
Before spring graduation was moved to May from June in 1979, the week of graduation was referred to as “June Week." Since midshipmen are not allowed to marry, many newly commissioned officers would wed at the chapel after graduation. The springtime rush has also evolved over the years, as more couples are waiting until they are older to get married.
But the desire for a chapel ceremony is consistent. In order to accommodate the extremely high demand, especially during peak wedding season, up to seven couples get married on the same day.
To pull off such an endeavor, chapel wedding coordinators run the day on a strict schedule.
“Fortunately, we haven’t come across a time where someone is more than five minutes late,” said wedding coordinator Christine Vazquez.
The ceremonies are stacked to start at 11 a.m. and run until 5 p.m. Protestant services are 30 minutes long, while hour-long Catholic Masses are typically allotted in the late afternoon or early evening block.
Vazquez and wedding coordinator Chloe Maxent spends that time strategically coordinating how to usher one wedding party into St. Andrew’s Chapel, located downstairs from the main chapel, getting the couple just announced as man and wife through the sword arch, seating the guests of the upcoming wedding and bringing the next bride up to the main chapel. Coordination is the key to ensuring there’s no overlap or interference from one bride to another, Maxent said.
The most challenging aspect of organizing chapel weddings is keeping a smooth pace while ensuring everyone’s event is special and not rushed, Vazquez said.
“Parents come out and say ... 'I thought it was going to be chaotic but it wasn’t,” Maxent said.
Couples can also be wed at the All Faiths Chapel or Jewish Synagogue on the Naval Academy grounds.
When the religious ceremony wraps up, the bride and groom exit the chapel and enter another ceremony, this one representing an entrance into military life. The sword arch is one of the most best-known traditions of a military wedding.
A group of six or eight swordsmen, selected by the couple, will hold a swords in the air to form an arch. The newlyweds will move forward and have to kiss at each arch. At the last arch, someone will say “Welcome to the Navy" or “Welcome to the Marine Corps” and tap the person not in the service on the butt with a sword.
A 2019 WeddingWire study found 53% of couples create a hashtag for social media sharing. With social media in mind, weddings have become less traditional and increasingly over the top in recent years. At the chapel, however, there’s no time for frill.
“I think they’re staying very traditional at the Naval Academy,” Maxent said. “I think that’s the beauty of the tradition.”
Another tradition that makes military weddings unique: the wedding cake is almost always cut with a sword. Photos are also taken at different spots around the Yard, in the superintendent’s garden with the academy and the chapel in the backdrop and in the Rotunda in Bancroft Hall.
Depending on if it’s the bride, groom or both who were commissioned, the couple decides if they want to wear their formal service uniforms or go the traditional gown and suit route. Grooms typically wear their military dress uniforms. Maxent and Vazquez said brides usually wear wedding gowns, although they could choose to wear their service uniforms as well.
“These men and women who signed up to serve our country, it’s just an incredible bonus to be able to get married in the chapel,” Vazquez said. “It ties in their commitment to serve and lead.”