February 26, 2014 at 8:04 am

Couple find a holier union in ruins of abandoned St. Agnes church

Melissa Douglas says she and Shane married in the abandoned church to keep their focus on the sacredness of their vows. (Caryn Noel)

Her wedding day, Feb. 9, 2013, was freezing cold. The church had no heat. Graffiti covered the walls behind what used to be the altar. Shards of shattered stained glass covered the floors. The organ was broken and falling apart.

Still, the bride says she wouldn’t change a thing: “It was desolate and amazing and beautiful all at the same time.“

There’s a reason Shane and Melissa Douglas chose to get married in the ravaged remains of St. Agnes Church on La Salle on Detroit’s near west side. Thankfully, the reason has nothing to do with ruin porn and everything to do with this young couple’s earnest desire to make their vows the No. 1 priority, i.e., the most important thing about getting married. Imagine that.

“We wanted to get married in St. Agnes because we felt it was the perfect place to make a covenant with God,” Melissa Douglas said recently. “It allowed us to focus on the sacredness of our vows, and not necessarily hosting a wedding reception.”

Anecdotally, abandoned church weddings are popping up with increasing frequency across the country. In Bethlehem, N.H., recently, an engaged couple, with their families’ help, swept away dust and dirt in a historic 90-year-old, long-since closed church for their wedding vows. Other couples have reportedly done the same in Texas, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Evidently, they find the peeling arched ceilings and decimated pews enchanting, if not pastoral.

“It was like a fairy tale,” Melissa said in an interview recently. “I’m sure a lot of women say that about their wedding, but it all just seemed so surreal: that we were getting married in this place that was broken and so beautiful.“

As far as weddings go, it was also extremely inexpensive. Melissa wore a borrowed dress and made her veil by hand. “When we looked at the simple cost equation of how much a new wedding dress was going to cost per hour — spending $900 on a dress I was going to wear for a couple hours — it just didn’t make sense.”

To decorate, they spray painted wine bottles that held delicate and draping tall orchids. A white runner for the bride and her father to walk down the aisle ran the length of the church. They paid a nominal fee to the property management owners of the church.

About 15 family members and close friends were invited.

“That was really tough because we wanted all our friends, but we knew it wasn’t the time or place to host them,” Melissa said.

Instead, last summer they had a large “wedding picnic” at Kensington Park for everyone to come and celebrate.

Pastor Kevin Butcher of Hope Community Church on East Jefferson and Chalmers officiated the wedding. He also played a big part in the couple’s engagement.

Having met in 2011 through church, Melissa, 22, a Wayne State University graduate in urban studies, and Shane, 30, who works in air filtration sales for a Sterling Heights-based company, knew they shared the same values.

“We were good friends at first and had no intentions of dating,” said Melissa. “But since we were both going through big transitions in our lives, we ended up growing really close together.“

They’d talked about marriage, but Melissa just thought “it was very cool” when they walked into church in early January 2013 and saw both their families in their pews. Then, when the congregation shared prayer requests, Butcher said he had a letter to read from a young man. It was Shane’s proposal. With Shane and Melissa standing on the altar, the letter was read. Shane asked for the whole church to walk with them on their journey.

The newlyweds now live in the Milwaukee Junction area, near the Russell Industrial Center, an area of Detroit starting to thrive thanks to the influx of young people and families like the Douglases. Melissa sells her art — painting, letter press and wood photo blocks — through her business visionrestartdetroit.com/. When the time comes for kids, Melissa said she’s heard a lot of good things about the nearby James and Grace Lee Bogg School. They are committed to the city for the long haul: “We are here to stay,“ she said.

About the only expense for the wedding for which they did not skimp was the photographs.

“We really felt it was important to document it,” she said. “We got married in a desolate place, but it was once a holy place. It felt like we made it holy again.”

MKeenan@detroitnews.com