LEESBURG | When John Cuomo proposed marriage to Alexa Earl February 2019, both pictured a wedding surrounded by family and friends as they professed their commitment to one another before God.
The word “pandemic” was not on their radar.
Set to marry on April 25, 2020 at St. James Cathedral in Orlando, the two prepared and planned. Everything changed when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a stay-at-home mandate for Florida residents. The couple decided to marry the following day. A livestream of the ceremony brought family and friends together, physically and virtually.
“We’ve all acknowledged it’s not what we envisioned, but we made the most of it,” John said. “We were able to achieve what’s most important, coming together and uniting with God. I think our story portrays a good depiction of the spiritual gifts of faith, hope and love. That is to what we held fast as a priority.” It is that focus on the actual Sacrament of Marriage and what it means that brought them together in the first place.
Alexa and John met about five years ago at a concert. “Not the most typical place you might find love,” John said. “We caught one another’s attention. There was a connection.”
They started dating a year later. It was the importance of faith and family that attracted them. Both credit their parents with giving them a solid Catholic foundation. Alexa recalled, “We both felt very comfortable with each other’s families because we come from similar backgrounds.”
“We share similar fundamental morals,” John added. “The things that matter the most in life, our faith and love for one another, our families’ values, and keeping God and our faith – a priority.”
As their wedding date approached and cases of coronavirus in the United States increased, Alexa’s father, Robert, who works with the government, and Hannah , an Army nurse and one of her six sisters, were put on lockdown. It was looking as though they would be unable to make the wedding.
In the weeks that followed, more of the couples’ conversation swirled around whether or not to accelerate or postpone the momentous event. “Even if we waited, not everyone was going to be able to be there anyway,” Alexa noted.
“We had already been going back and forth about proceeding with a small ceremony of under 10 people on April 25. We kind of had those wheels in motion and had the expectation that it would be at St. Paul’s in Leesburg, rather than St. James,” as Father Martin Nguyen, was now parochial vicar of St. Paul.
Then, it happened. Gov. DeSantis called a press conference announcing the stay-at-home mandate. Restaurants and event venues would be closed until further notice. Social distancing was strongly urged and the topic of whether or not to wear masks filled the air waves and daily conversations. Chaos seemed to be escalating around them.
“I am very type A and thought, I don’t know if I can wait three weeks with this type of stress, not knowing what’s going to happen,” Alexa recalled.
Father Nguyen called immediately after the press conference offering his support for whatever they wanted to do. He said he was ready to marry them in 24-hours and informed them they could livestream the wedding. It was 2 p.m., Wednesday, April 1, 2020. They made the call to get married the next morning at 10 a.m.
Alexa remembers still feeling a little unsettled. “There was definitely a strange feeling of stress, and anxiety of not including my parents physically there and just the unknown…” she said. “But the livestream offered something that we didn’t even know was capable. It turned out as well as it could in the midst of everything and we’re grateful for that.”
“Although we were prepared, it felt rushed,” John admitted. “We were ready, but to make that decision so swiftly was a lot to take in and to process. Ultimately, I could sense that was what Alexa wanted to do, and I wanted to as well. Mostly, I just wanted to support her. I knew it was the right decision because it would put her mind at ease.”
Next, they called their parents.
“We were anticipating that things were going to be changing,” said Tammy Earl, Alexa’s mother. The family had moved to Virginia a year ago. When they got the call, she recalled feeling “exhilarated because we were happy for them to have the Sacrament and begin that part of their lives. At the same time, a little panicky, wondering could we make it? If we left right now, we could.”
After taking a few deep breaths, they chose to watch via livestream so as not to get caught on the road and possibly be unable to return, since some states were restricting entry.
“We decided to stay put and pray over them from where we were, but of course, we were saddened not being able to be with them.”
In Ocala, Michele Cuomo’s response was exuberant. “Let’s do it.” She thought to herself, “This is God coming through.” Since she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last September, she prayed she would reach this significant milestone and see her son get married. Living within an hour of St. Paul Parish, she and her husband Louis would be able to make it.
“I was over the moon. Just the fact that I was there…,” Michele recalled. “It was a very special day. … Among the chaos of what we were going through, it was a ray of sunshine in the midst of a lot of grayness.”
Memories returned to the day John told her about Alexa. Michele’s first question was, “What is her religion?” When he told her she was a faithful, practicing Catholic, Michele felt it was an answer to her prayers.
“The Sacrament of Marriage is sacred. It is ultimate sacredness, in my opinion,” she said. “I feel there is no greater love that you can give to another person, than through marriage. The greatness that goes along with that is when two people have that same view.”
For the Earls, the conviction was just as strong. The Sacrament itself took priority. “It’s them and God,” Tammy Earl affirmed. “Ideally, yes, you would want your closest family members being there and celebrating with you, but ultimately, they belong to him and the Sacrament is something for them to celebrate and give to one another. For it to matter to them is huge. It is something to accept as a gift. We’ve done our best imperfectly, but we are very grateful that they wanted to make it what it is supposed to be in God’s eyes. It’s a great consolation to us.”
Tammy had been reflecting on the meaning of spiritual communion and asked God to inspire them with ways to be more intentionally present. She, Robert and Alexa’s sisters – Allie, Gianna, and Emma — set about doing whatever they could. They donned their wedding clothes, including bridesmaids’ gowns, made a homemade wedding cake with a photo of the couple at its center and Robert held a photo of Alexa as he imagined walking her down the aisle. After all, she was the eldest of their seven girls and the first to be married.
“We were happy and sad at the same time,” Tammy said. “My chest physically ached the entire day, but I embraced it because I thought, this is part of the prayer, part of being with them, that pain that you have when you love someone.”
She sought ways to offer that up and took walks when “the reality sunk in that we really did miss it.” She added, “I lifted it up and talked to God out loud and said, this is our offering for their marriage. It helped, but it still hurt, but it was okay. It’s part of the package, having those aches for your kids along the way at different points, for different reasons, in different circumstances.” Tammy and Robert understood, “It’s a lesson for marriage. You plan all these things. You have all these expectations and it just doesn’t go the way you had planned. That’s pretty much life and marriage too.”
John’s parents drove from Ocala. Alexa’s sister, Heidi, who lives in Orlando, and Alexa’s boss and mentor, Jenny Lovely, attended. John’s brother, Alexa’s parents and sisters Hannah, Allie, Gianna, Emma and Holly watched via livestream, joined by friends, many of whom otherwise would not have been able to participate. “It went seamlessly,” Alexa remarked, the day still vivid in her mind. “The technology was amazing. They even had multiple camera shots.”
Her sister, Heidi, stepped in to fill several roles. She walked her sister down the aisle for her father and served as lector for her mother. Previewing the reading from 1 Corinthians, she knew it was going to be emotional as she read, “Love endures all things.” “Seeing them both grow together, that line spoke to me,” she said. Given the circumstances surrounding their wedding and the many hard decisions they were already forced to make, the words took on a deeper meaning than most newlyweds would comprehend.
Regardless of one’s love or disdain for the internet, the fact remains that technology facilitated others to be present. “It’s all in how you use it,” said Tammy. “Technology can be a blessing or a curse. That day, it was truly a blessing. I complain about internet and usage a lot, but that day, I was particularly thankful we had an opportunity to join with them in that way… praying with them from where we were and spiritually uniting ourselves without being physically present.”
Alexa emphasized it was their parents’ and Father Nguyen’s support and focus on the Sacrament of Marriage that got them through it. “That kind of drove it home for me, and for John too. That’s what you really need to focus on – not all the craziness and chaos around you.”
“Sometimes life throws curveballs at us, but we have our faith to lean on,” acknowledged John. “We’re just thankful we were able to do it and humbled that we were still able to achieve what’s most important. Ultimately when we look back, we’ll have a story to tell, and hopefully one that will always be meaningful to us.”
In his homily, Father Nguyen reminded the couple of what their love would demand of them and admired their “deep commitment to each other and to their Catholic faith.” “It gave me great joy to witness their matrimony,” he said smiling. “While facing such a challenging time, this celebration was a powerful reminder of that beautiful truth: omnia vincit amor – love conquers all things.”