By TERRY SPENCER
PALM BEACH, Fla,. (AP) — Shackeem Frankson is the quintessential burly prison guard, but when he turned Monday to exchange wedding vows with his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Horton, he had to pause to wipe away the tear that trickled down his cheek.
But no worries — the other eight couples exchanging their own vows at a mass Valentine’s Day wedding outside one of Florida’s most historic mansions were probably too busy to notice.
“It’s all right to be emotional today,” said Frankson, his bride giggling at him being busted, after the ceremony arranged by Palm Beach County Court Clerk Joseph Abruzzo and his staff.
Appropriately, the group ceremony took place on the south lawn of Whitehall, the 75-room, 100,000-square-foot (9,290-square meter) waterside retreat that oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler built as a wedding present for his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. The Flaglers wintered there beginning in 1902, and it is now the centerpiece of the Flagler Museum. Historians say it cost $4 million ($110 million today) to build. It typically costs $15,000 to get married there, but on this day the only cost was the $86 license fee.
And it was a bright, sunny but chilly for a South Florida morning (62 degrees Fahrenheit, or 17 degrees Celsius) as the couples gathered outside the gates of the two-story neoclassical mansion, its white columns overlooking the crowd. The brides, all in white dresses, stood with their grooms, mostly dressed in dark suits or tuxes. The women were given red long-stem roses; the men were pinned with rose boutonnieres.
Bride-to-be Diana Garcia waited with her fiance, retail manager Sergio Mena, about to culminate their two months of engagement. They met in middle school about a dozen years ago, but only started dating two years ago. They have a 1-year-old son.
Garcia — or Diana Mena as you are reading this — signed up the couple after seeing it promoted on the clerk’s website. It “would be really cool” to get married on Valentine’s Day at such a historic venue.
“It is a special destination — and not at the courthouse,” said Diana Mena, a housekeeper.
For Frankson and the former Ms. Horton, who waited nearby, the ceremony ended a five-year engagement — “we just kept putting it off,” she said. They met online seven years ago.
Sarah Frankson, an accounts manager, said she had seen a local TV news story that the clerk’s office was seeking couples for the ceremony, so she signed them up and they were picked. They’d sorta started planning a wedding a couple years ago, but then the COVID-19 pandemic began and it got pushed aside until this opportunity arose.
“It is different,” she said. Frankson added another benefit — there was none of the “hassle” of planning a more traditional wedding. The downside — no families were allowed, including the Franksons’ 5-year-old son, but they could watch the ceremony on Facebook and many had plans for luncheons or receptions after.
Soon, the clerk and museum staff escorted the couples onto the grounds, where Abruzzo awaited them on the portico. The brides were taken stage right, the grooms stage left, then brought back together as recorded violins played.
As the couples stood under stately palm trees with yachts bobbing in the Intracoastal Waterway behind them, Abruzzo presented their vows. He asked them to recite that they would not only love and cherish each other, but give their new spouse “all of my tomorrows.”
For Arielle Agnelli, whose long dress train flowed behind her, and Bryan Arvesu, the ceremony replaced the 150-person one they canceled in August 2020 because of the pandemic. As they waited in the reception area to receive their wedding certificate, they held close when asked what they thought of the ceremony.
“It was amazing and wonderful,” the newly christened Arielle Agnelli-Arvesu said.
They knew they had something special when they met eight years ago at a friend’s house — “the second I saw her,” he said.
They chuckled a bit when they disclosed their occupations — she’s an interior designer, he’s a home renovator.
“It is a TV show in the making!” he joked. Maybe.
Then they and the others were off, some to meet the family members who awaited them outside the mansion’s gates to take them to lunch. And the rest of their lives.