The plague has many powers. It can shut down businesses. It can send children home from schools. It can close offices and agencies of the government.
But in some ways, the spread of an epidemic opens up human feeling, it clears the passages to the human heart and allows them to breathe — sometimes in grief, and sometimes in happiness.
So it was in midafternoon Wednesday that Allia Dhody, 40, shimmering in a black-and-white dress, and her fiancé, Michael Mountjoy, 47, sharp in a blue Oxford, found themselves within a very small circle of family, each person six feet apart, in the sun-splashed front garden of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill.
Cell phones beamed others into the small circle — those unable to attend, which was just about everybody. Virtual hugs traversed cyberspace, the only safe space to be found for a group these days. Or a wedding ceremony.
Welcome to the COVID-19 marriage season, complete with absent cyber-attendees crying real-world tears hundreds of miles away, a ceremony including a plague-mask wearing ring bearer, and a six-foot-long ribbon-wrapped “plague stick” used to ensure proper, government-approved social distancing. Six precious feet.
The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, rector of St. Martin, who presided, allowed that this was his first plague wedding, so-called by Dhody and Mountjoy because it took place within the deep unease and uncertainty that have settled in thick clouds over the country with the billowing advance of COVID-19.
St. Martin sits close to the border of Montgomery County, hottest of Pennsylvania’s hot spots.
“This is a first,” Kerbel said. “This is a never before. I was really glad to be asked. And I am really glad to do it.”
The bride’s mother was in actual attendance, plus her sister and brother-in-law, and one or two others. No guests outside the family. No reception.
The groom’s parents attended via FaceTime. There was no way they could come all the way from Indianapolis.
Ashwin Hagar, 7, nephew of the bride, served as ring bearer, properly garbed with a black cape and a bronze-hued mask sporting a great beak — inspired by the head gear worn by doctors during the time of the Black Death during the Middle Ages.
That last bit of fancy came from Ashwin’s mom, Anna Dhody, the bride’s sister.
Anna Dhody knows a thing or two about plagues. She’s curator of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which has had to temporarily close, suspending visits to its ambitious exhibition, “Spit Spreads Death," a look at the post-World War I influenza pandemic that killed 20,000 Philadelphians.
Ashwin proved serious with the plague stick, keeping a special eye on his sociable grandmother, Joanne Dhody, who had a tendency to lean into her conversations.
“Grammy! Back away,” Ashwin said more than once.
The ceremony was a simple one, and brief. Afterward, some ate cake Anna Dhody made — wearing surgical gloves, she assured — and then packed in plastic containers. Untouched by potentially encrusted human hands.
So why would anyone choose to get married in such a time?
“We did it because we have a marriage license that is going to expire and the courts are closed and we didn’t know what to do," said Allia Dhody.
She and Mountjoy decided to do it Tuesday, the day before, while sitting inside their car — as it was being repaired. “We didn’t want to sit in the shop,” she said.
“So much has changed so quickly from when we got the license,” she continued.
Mountjoy, listening in, said, “We didn’t know what would be open, whether we’d be able to go to a justice of the peace or anything like that."
They were all set to look at wedding venues, he said, when the encroaching COVID-19 began to shut everything down.
“All of a sudden now, like, we can’t do any of that," he said. "We also wanted to make sure that we can properly represent each other, right, advocate, if there’s a health issue or if there’s any problem. Now we have legal standing.”
In other words, if there were medical issues, perhaps connected to the potentially deadly shadow hovering beyond the circle of this small gathering, Dhody and Mountjoy could help each other.
Mountjoy finished the thought: “The love was there already,” he said.
Dhody held him close, “Yeah, oh, yeah,” she said. “Number one because we love each other.”
They kissed. And when she looked up and she saw her sister, Anna, more than six feet away, the tears came.
“I wish I could hug my mom," she said. “I wish I could hug my sister on my wedding day.”
And then she turned to her husband and said, “I love you so much. I didn’t want to wait.”