Saying I do for a Justice of the peace
John Alley, a justice of the peace, remembered one memorable wedding when the couple asked if he would mind a nude wedding party. Unfortunately, this message was left with his wife, Anna, who forgot to let him know before he left the house to perform his duties.
So to his surprise, the couple arrived at the ceremony in the buff, but, ever the professional, the show went on. Afterward, Mr. Alley said, a visitor from Japan snapped photos of the wedding and told him it was the best part of the entire vacation.
Mr. Alley, a longtime West Tisbury resident, is one of several justices of the peace on the Island, a group that has a special view of the Island wedding scene: they take their job as officiants seriously, guiding couples through ceremonies on Island beaches, lighthouses, and even in the justices’ own homes.
Mr. Alley estimates he has presided over more than 2,000 ceremonies in the 33 years he’s been a justice of the peace. The weddings have taken place on yachts and sailing ships, on an airplane, on beaches and in homes and inns. He almost always wears a top hat and tails, a tradition that began when he wore the attire to his first ceremony, Allen and Lynne Whiting’s marriage. When he first started, he said, he knew most of the couples, but that has changed with the increase in off-Island couples who want to get married on the Vineyard.
Mr. Alley said he finds it especially fun and interesting interacting with the couples. “One time there was the bride who was about to descend a long winding staircase,” he recalled. The bride got part way down, he said, and with the groom patiently waiting for her, she “tripped on her wedding gown and literally flew into his outstretched arms.”
Justices of the peace are appointed by the governor to seven-year terms, with state law allowing for one justice of the peace for every 5,000 residents of a municipality. The justices submit an application, which must be signed by four references from the applicant’s city or town, one of whom needs to write a one-page reference.
Town clerks, assistant clerks, and court clerks can also submit petitions to become justices of the peace. Those looking to perform a marriage of a friend or family member need not be a justice of the peace, and instead can obtain a one-day marriage designation which gives authorization to formalize one wedding.
Chilmark’s Merrily Fenner became a justice of the peace 13 years ago, when the town clerk in Chilmark suggested she apply for the job. She officiates at 25 to 30 weddings a year, primarily in the summer. After getting in touch with a couple, who usually find her through word of mouth, she’ll often discuss the ceremony with them during in-person or phone meetings. “Or sometimes they just call and say ‘hey, see you there,’” she added.
Mrs. Fenner said she works with a simple program that she prepared, which couples can go through and edit. Some couples write their own vows. “That’s very touching when they do that,” she said. When the couples get emotional, Mrs. Fenner said she often follows suit. “I take it very seriously.”
“I love the fact that they don’t go by script anymore,” Mrs. Fenner said about changing attitudes towards weddings. “Nowadays, anything goes.”
“It’s always fun when they bring the dogs, which is actually a big thing now.”
Mrs. Fenner said she’s performed weddings at beaches, homes, Island lighthouses and all the churches on the Island — at the Old Whaling church, the “acoustics are phenomenal.”
During rainstorms, some weddings have decamped to Mrs. Fenner’s Galley Restaurant in Menemsha. “Which is fun, a lot of fun,” she said. “They make their own ice creams after.”
Mrs. Fenner said she prefers not to do many weddings in the same day because she likes to savor the experience. But one time on one day she performed two weddings in Edgartown, and another in Chilmark. When she returned home, a couple that had asked her to officiate at their wedding months before but never confirmed the date, had left a message on her machine: “We’re ready...where are you?”
Mrs. Fenner ran over to perform the wedding. “They were such nice people,” she recalled. But it had been a very long day. During the service Ms. Fenner got the bride’s name right, but used the groom’s name from a previous wedding.
The bride burst out laughing and said, “That’s the name of my old boyfriend.”
Other weddings are even more personal for Mrs. Fenner: she has officiated at the weddings of family and friends, including her son. “Being raised on Martha’s Vineyard, I do know an awful lot [of the couples], and that’s something special,” she said. Increasingly, she added, her children’s friends are the ones getting married.
“It’s just been a joy...It’s such a happy time, you really can’t lose,” she said.
For Ken and Joann Debettencourt of Oak Bluffs, weddings are a team effort. Mr. Debettencourt has been a justice of the peace for about 15 years, and his wife helps couples plan the ceremony.
Some couples want the ceremony to be cut and dried, she said, and others want it longer, or want to incorporate candles, readings, songs, or children. Mrs. Debettencourt said it’s her job to make sure couples get what they want — the ceremony is non-denominational, but some want scripture. Others want to include their dogs. “It’s over so quickly,” she said, “so it’s important to get it right.”
The day of the wedding, “Ken puts on his robe and reads,” Mrs. Debettencourt said. “It’s always moving at the end when he declares them husband and wife.”
In this role, “I deal with a lot of people and I like dealing with people,” Mr. Debettencourt said.
“It’s a happy time, it’s an enjoyable time to be with people...there really is no downside,” his wife added.
The couple has been married for 44 years. “An Island record, I think,” Mr. Debettencourt joked. Some weddings have even taken place in the zinnia garden at the couple’s Wing Road home, including their nephew’s wedding.
In bad weather, weddings have moved indoors to the couple’s living room. “They like coming to the house,” Mr. Debettencourt said. “We give them a bottle of champagne afterward.”
“We’ve done that more than once,” Mrs. Debettencourt added.
One memorable wedding moment came during a ceremony at the East Chop Lighthouse, Mrs. Debettencourt recalled. “The first one we did with a dog, I remember, it was a surprise...I’m not even sure we were aware.”
“Ken asked for the rings, and the groom whistled, and the dog came running like a bullet,” she said. “I was so afraid he would go running over the edge. But the dog stopped obediently.”
The rings were around the dog’s neck.
“It went off perfectly, without a hitch,” Mrs. Debettencourt said. “And everybody loved it.”