Soon after Joanne Schwartz became the first woman elected as Burlington County clerk, she felt the tug of her heartstrings and decided to make a break with past practice on one of her new duties: performing civil weddings.
Schwartz, 76, despised the idea of having couples tie the knot in her office in Mount Holly, across from the courthouse. “It’s drab and unattractive, and in a back room — no place for a wedding," she said. Several days after she was sworn in last month, Schwartz cleared out a little-used conference room and brought in a wedding arch wrapped with silken pink peonies and white wisteria.
Her staff draped one wall with sheer curtains, hung strings of twinkling lights, and placed scented candles all around. A dozen chairs were set up for family and friends.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Kay, 29, beamed when she and fiance Joseph Homen, 32, were led to the “wedding room” and saw the fuss. The couple arrived in jeans and weren’t expecting much. Kay said they just wanted to be married, but without all the trappings of renting a hall and inviting a crowd. They met 11 years ago and have lived together for more than a year in Mount Laurel.
“We don’t need a big party, just my family here,” Kay said shortly before the clerk married them in front of 11 family members. It took about five minutes, and ended with a kiss and hugs all around. Schwartz told them they were about to embark on “life’s greatest journey together.”
Schwartz wore a black judge’s robe and a white lacy scarf for the occasion. With a chuckle, she confessed that the scarf had been the covering for her coffee table at her Southampton home.
“I have vows here, or I can read vows that you may have brought with you,” she asked the couple. “It’s your wedding, you get to do whatever you want.” Kay said the vows Schwartz offered would be fine.
Aimee Belgard, who campaigned with Schwartz several years ago when they ran for two open seats on the county Freeholder Board, had shared with her a copy of the vows that she reads when she officiates at weddings. Schwartz and Belgard, who are Democrats, were elected to one term on the board, and Belgard went on to become a Superior Court judge.
As county clerk, Schwartz is in charge of recording deeds, election results, and passports, and handling other official documents. The weddings, she said, are a pleasant break. So far, she’s done nearly 30.
Though she welcomes same-sex couples, she said, none has requested her services yet.
“We see all kinds of people come in for all kinds of situations. The common thread is, they want to get married right away, and it’s a cost savings, because they don’t have to put out a lot of money or pay for putting on a big wedding,” she said. Couples must make an appointment, but Schwartz said she can handle the ceremony with a day’s notice.
Past clerks used their offices as the backdrop for weddings except on special holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas, when they were held at the historic Smithville Mansion in Eastampton or at county parks.
“Weddings are special, and I wanted this to be special for them. We want to make it as nice as possible," said Schwartz, whose husband of 43 years died four years ago of complications of Parkinson’s disease on Valentine’s Day. She said his death turned a romantic holiday that they had always celebrated into a sad day — until now.
This past Valentine’s Day, Schwartz married a dozen couples at the nearby Burlington County Lyceum of History and Natural Sciences. The Victorian mansion in Mount Holly has been restored, and the weddings are held in front of a fireplace. “Stephan would have approved. ... Now I get to do these weddings in his memory," she said.
The mansion is rumored to be haunted, and one of the 12 couples that wed there was thrilled that the place might have a ghost, she said. “They were really excited about getting married in a haunted house," said Schwartz.
She plans to perform weddings at the Historic Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly on Halloween — if she gets any takers. And she is weighing doing summer weddings at gazebos in county parks and Christmas weddings at Smithville.
Military couples often seek the marriage services of the clerk when one of them is about to be deployed, Schwartz said. “It’s a little quicker having it done here than on the military base,” she said.
Couples must first obtain their marriage license from a township where one of them resides and wait 72 hours, under state law.
Schwartz said she has married couples of all ages, some together a short time while others have lived together as long as 30 years.
She and her husband got married at a synagogue in Verona, in North Jersey, and she recalled that their ceremony and celebration went on for a while. Neighbors called police — twice — because of all the noise.
“We were so happy,” she said.
The couples that come before her rekindle those feelings. “Doing these weddings brings me joy,” she said.