Exhibit explores endurance of love, marriage
The cake may have crumbled, but the wedding dress Mildred (Welch) O'Grady wore down the aisle of Rochester's St. Bridget Church has endured.
Fifty years after her June 21, 1922, marriage to Edward O'Grady, Mildred's dress was discovered languishing in a steamer trunk the couple had used on their honeymoon.
Also in the trunk -- seemingly intact -- was a piece of the couple’s wedding cake.
But when those who found the trunk touched the cake, "it just disintegrated," said Karen Zielinski, a parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mendon.
The story of Mildred O'Grady's disintegrating cake and enduring dress is one that will be shared during an exhibition of 40 wedding dresses -- ranging from 1904 to the present -- on display June 5-8 at St. Catherine of Siena's community center. The exhibit, "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed ... " is a fundraiser for the parish’s now-depleted Good Samaritan Fund, which has provided confidential emergency financial aid to area residents experiencing temporary financial hardships.
Also among the wedding dresses to be exhibited is a 1991 gown from the first wedding to take place at the newly constructed St. Catherine of Siena Church; a dress that was hand-crocheted by the bride’s mother; an original design by noted designer Vera Wang; a dress that was worn by three generations of women; a dress shared by four sisters; a dress worn by six relatives; and a dress discovered in the attic of a Lake Placid cottage.
The exhibit also will include five examples of grooms’ attire from various eras, wedding photographs of nearly all the dresses being worn, and anecdotes like the one about O’Grady’s dress and cake.
Taken together, the wedding artifacts speak not just about changing fashions, but also to the endurance of love and marriage over generations, said Zielinski, an exhibit organizer.
"We’re trying to celebrate marriage," she said.
Married couples will be blessed at the end of Masses June 7-8, and the parish also will host a wedding-reception-themed gala June 6, Zielinski said. Also on display will be wedding photographs contributed by parishioners whose wedding dresses could not be exhibited due to space constraints.
The idea for a such an exhibit came from parishioner Bridget Blackburn, a native of England who several years ago attended a wedding-dress-themed luncheon put on by the famed Victoria and Albert Museum in England, which currently has an extensive exhibit on the history of the wedding dress.
"I went to a charity lunch where someone from the Victoria and Albert Museum talked about the history of the wedding dress," Blackburn explained.
Blackburn thought a wedding-dress-themed event might make a good fundraiser for St. Catherine of Siena, so she approached Zielinski with the idea. Zielinski, in turn, presented the idea to the parish’s social-ministry committee, whose members wondered whether an extensive exhibit could be pulled together.
Zielinski then asked the female members of the committee whether they still had their wedding dresses. And that’s when the wedding stories began pouring out.
"We looked to one woman who has to be one of our oldest parishioners and a pillar of the community, and she said, ‘I had 10 days to find a dress,’" Zielinski said.
With the support of the committee, Zielinski began asking parishioners to borrow wedding dresses for the exhibit, and Blackburn began the long process of custom-making dress forms out of fabric, wood and duct tape to provide suitable foundations on which to display the gowns.
Additionally, organizers obtained photographs of the wedding dresses as worn by the brides on their wedding days, and interviewed couples about their wedding recollections. A program for the exhibit includes snippets of these recollections to share their history with visitors.
"People really opened up about things that happened," Blackburn said. "The original reminiscences were much longer in many cases. They told very moving personal things."
One dress in the exhibit was even connected to a famous tragedy.
That dress was worn by Violet (Collett) VanderKolk, who married John VanderKolk on Sept. 17, 1913. In 1912, Violet’s brother traveled from England to the United States for the wedding, booking a seat on the ill-fated Titanic’s maiden voyage. He was saved when he was chosen to row a lifeboat whose passengers included two young family friends he was escorting to America. All three were among those rescued from the disaster.
Jana Wintish, the VanderKolks' granddaughter, loaned the dress for the exhibit.
Like the VanderKolk dress, every dress in the exhibition had a unique story attached, said Mary Wangler, a parishioner who is helping with publicity for the exhibit.
"The stories covered a huge array of things that can happen at a wedding," she said. "When you go through reading the stories, it will bring your own memories."
Blackburn, whose dress is included in the exhibition, noted that the exhibit also sparked her to remember her own "for better or for worse" wedding tale: When she and her new husband returned to the U.S. from their honeymoon in England, she was arrested at the Boston airport and subsequently paroled into his custody. By getting married, Blackburn had unwittingly invalidated her American visitor’s visa.
"Every weekend (for three months) I had to go to Buffalo to prove it wasn’t a marriage of convenience," said Blackburn, noting that she became a U.S. citizen about 15 years ago.
In another example, Dorothy (Verrelli) Redding told organizers she picked up the tab for the marriage license to marry David Redding, who was then a college student of limited means. He also had to borrow her father’s black socks because he didn’t have any of his own. They were married June 7, 1958, at St. Bernard’s Church in Bradford, Pa.
"He likes to say he’s the best investment she ever made," Zielinski said.
Like Dorothy Redding's investment in her husband, the exhibit's organizers say they aim to help the parish invest in their neighbors through the Good Samaritan Fund, which was established about a decade ago to help unemployed members of the community during a time of economic downturn. The fund is available for those who are struggling due to such events as job loss, illness, accident, disability, fire or spousal abandonment.
Confidential financial assistance is made in the form of direct payment of bills from utility companies, landlords/mortgage companies, medical-related businesses, insurance companies and transportation providers.
"The fund was used over many years and then it was depleted," Zielinski said. "We didn’t just want to go back out and say, ‘Can you fund this?’ We wanted something that would not only replenish the fund but do something that renews the purpose."
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EDITOR’S NOTE: The wedding dress exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 5-6; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 7; and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 8 at the St. Catherine of Siena Church Community Center, 26 Mendon-Ionia Road, Mendon. Admission is $10 per person or $35 for four people. Tickets are available at the door, online at www.saintcath.org, at St. Catherine of Siena and at the Mendon branch of Pittsford Federal Credit Union. The weekend also includes a gala reception; limited tickets are available in advance. The gala will take place at the parish from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. June 6. Admission is $25 or $45 for two people, and the event will feature refreshments, elegant light fare, music and admission to the exhibit. Wedding attire is encouraged.