This love story starts with a divorced mother of four and a never-used wedding dress that had been hanging in her closet for years, the tags still on it. Colleen Donovan bought it when a second chance at bliss seemed to be in the offing. Alas, it was not.
But then three years ago, a friend was getting married. A voice inside Donovan piped up.
“Sometimes God says, ‘Open your hand, and bless somebody else with something you wanted for yourself,‘” she said. “That’s what happened with the dress. I gave it to my girlfriend instead of holding onto it for myself. That’s where Blessing Brides was born.”
Blessing Brides Ministry, to be precise. And if you happen to be in Downingtown and stroll into Donovan’s little storefront boutique, you might mistake it for just a wedding shop. It’s much more than that.
Donovan’s full-time job is hospice nurse. Blessing Brides is her avocation, a more recent calling.
After she gave the dress to her friend, Donovan started acquiring other wedding dresses — from consignment shops, from thrifts, from stores that were closing. Donovan wasn’t quite sure where she was going with it all, or what the enterprise would look like. Online sales maybe?
But then a friend told her about a Downingtown storefront that was available for rent at a reasonable price. When the shop opened about a year and a half ago, word of mouth and a piece in a local pennysaver alerted the bridal grapevine that Donovan welcomed donations.
And the dresses started coming — some donated by brides who had happy love stories and others who wished better endings for their frocks’ new owners than they themselves had had. The frothy torrent of lace, satin, and tulle has continued unabated.
Blessing Brides is now open by appointment in the evenings and, as COVID-19 restrictions have eased, on Fridays and Saturdays. The dresses, which range from vintage to modern to high-end designer, are deeply discounted. “Every woman deserves to be beautiful,” Donovan said. “It’s an expression of the goodness of God.”
Each dress bears a tag with the name of the woman who donated it. And if the donator wishes (and almost all of them do), once the dress is purchased Donovan will send them a photo of the bride-to-be wearing it.
“It’s like open adoption,” she explained.
Blessing Brides isn’t a consignment shop. The women who donate their dresses don’t get any monetary compensation. What they do get is far more sublime.
Barbara Harris, 62, a nurse from West Chester, donated two dresses to Blessing Brides in 2018, the year she and her husband, Jeffrey, 63, a West Chester University professor of nutrition, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. One she had worn as a bridesmaid long ago, and the other she made, with her mother, for her wedding to Jeffrey on Sept. 9, 1978.
Harris was especially delighted to donate her wedding dress.
“I thought maybe this will bless somebody else’s relationship, like I had been blessed with my marriage,” she said. “I felt good about it, especially when Colleen sent me the picture.”
Kaylee Agostinelli, 31, and her husband Kenneth, 30, who live in West Chester and who both work for Vanguard, had a beautiful wedding last Oct. 11 at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. She bought her gown — “a very different dress” — in a boutique in Maine, where she is originally from.
When Donovan told her about her Blessing Brides Ministry (they’re members of the same congregation: Providence Church in West Chester), she was interested in donating her gown, but she had to think about it.
“I talked to my mom,” she said. “I talked to my husband about it, a lot.”
In the end, handing over the dress to Blessing Brides Ministry just felt like the right thing to do, said Agostinelli.
“I think it’s very unique — knowing your dress went to a nice home, knowing that someone else is getting happiness out of the dress that provided you so much happiness on your day.”
Some brides have experienced both giving and receiving the blessing. Kimberly Murzynski, 33, has been there, from heartbreak to happiness.
In April, the Toyota saleswoman and mother of an 8-year-old son donated a wedding dress she never got to wear.
“Almost nine years ago, my son’s father and I were going to get married. Then he cancelled the wedding the week before. I was five months pregnant,” Murzynski said.
In May, the month after she donated her old dress, she went back to Blessing Brides and bought a gown — buttons down the back, a train, the works. She’ll be wearing it on Aug. 1 when she weds her fiance, Matthew Smith, 39, in their Downingtown backyard. The size of the guest list will depend on whether Chester County is in COVID phase yellow or green by then.
Murzynski is OK with however the day works out. Between the wedding that didn’t happen and the tough years that immediately followed it, she went through plenty: single motherhood, working four jobs for a while, trouble making ends meet. Much of it was before she met her husband-to-be.
“He was like the silver lining,” said Murzynski. “Things have definitely come a long way.”
She bears no ill will toward her old dress.
“I hope some girl falls in love with it,” she said. “It was a good dress.”
Her hope for “Faye,” the new dress?
“That it’s the only dress I ever have to wear down the aisle.”
Colleen Donovan would be the first to tell you there’s something spiritual about this whole what-goes-around-comes-around bridal thing.
She doesn’t take credit for any of it. Sometimes it’s just a bride in need of a bargain and finding one, and that’s magic enough. Other times, the story has that touched-by-an-angel feeling that leaves a lump in your throat.
And then there are blessings for which there are no words.
Case in point: the tale of the tiara.
Michele Paiva, 53, a therapist and YouTube content contributor from Downingtown, was in Blessing Brides last year helping daughter Alexandria Kochinsky, 27, an event planner, shop for a gown for her upcoming nuptials. Seeing all the vintage accessories, Paiva couldn’t help but indulge a decades-long quest.
Over 30 years before, Paiva, 20 years old at the time, was loading boxes in her cars for a move. One of them contained a headpiece and veil that her mother had worn as a bride. Ever since she was a little girl, it had been precious to Paiva. She hoped one day to wear it at her own wedding one day and to pass it on to her own daughter, if she had one — a part of her mother to keep forever.
But that day, for a few moments, she left the car unlocked. The tiara and veil were stolen.
“The guilt and shame stayed with me my whole life,” Paiva said.
She could never bring herself to confess what happened to her mother, who died 20 years ago. Over the years, she searched for the veil in flea markets and on eBay, to no avail.
So on that day in Blessings Bride, Paiva asked Donovan to please let her know if she ever came across a scalloped, beaded headpiece.
“She just sort of looked at me. She said, ‘Let me look in the back,’” Paiva recalled. “She came out, held one up, and she said, ‘Is this something like what you were looking for?'
“I just started shaking and crying because, for all intents and purposes, she was holding my mother’s tiara and veil,” Paiva said, choking up just remembering it. “I had to sit down. My daughter was hugging me. We kept saying, ‘It was meant to be that we’re here.’”
Paiva told Donovan she’d pay her anything for it. But the shopkeeper wouldn’t take a dime.
“Money seemed irrelevant,” Donovan said.
Blessing Brides, in the end, is its own love story, passed on from one bride to another.
For now, it’s still Donovan’s labor of love. But who knows? After 30 years as a nurse, she would like to segue into making the shop a full-time endeavor (her friend and fellow nurse, Lisa Leitch, is willing to join her).
Donovan, 58, is quick to admit she’s a romantic, through and through. Remember the dress she didn’t get to wear, the one she gave to her girlfriend? Well, her friend donated it back to Blessing Brides after she was married in it. It subsequently became the shop’s first sale, noted Donovan with delight.
“It would be really nice,” she said, “to spend my retirement years at somebody else’s wedding every day.”