PHILADELPHIA, PA - And now, in time for the holidays, I bring you the best winter wedding story I've ever heard.
It features a cracked cake, a ruined dress and a snowstorm so ferocious it almost kept Stephanie Sudzina and Anthony Campanale from enjoying the fairy-tale Big Day that took them two years to plan.
Instead, the blizzard of 2009 taught the couple a thing or two about love - and about how far strangers will go to make sure it gets off to a good start.
The curtain lifted on this drama early Saturday morning, as Stephanie and Anthony watched the blizzard from their hotel rooms. Stephanie was staying at the Four Seasons on the Parkway, with her mom. Anthony was at the Ritz-Carlton on the Avenue of the Arts with family and dozens of guests.
Both had spent an anxious night checking AccuWeather, worried about the coming storm. They'd hoped for a pretty dusting of snow on their wedding day, but for God's sake, the drifts piling up outside were looking like dunes.
The terrible weather had already forced 40 of their guests to cancel attendance at the planned 1 p.m. ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. A reception was to follow at historic Glen Foerd mansion, in Northeast Philly.
"We got desperate calls from a number of our vendors, asking if we were still going forward with the wedding," says Stephanie, 35, a conference planner who grew up in Royersford. "We said, 'Yes! Yes! People have come from all over the world for us!' "
Stephanie had met Anthony, 36, an Australian building designer, on a Greek cruise in 2006. After a long-distance courtship, she moved to Sydney to be with him. Travel enthusiasts, they've made friends around the globe, many of whom had converged in Philly for the wedding.
Stephanie had hired a private bus and trolley to ferry guests (they were now down to 70) from the Ritz to the Basilica, then to Glen Foerd and back. But as the storm intensified, the head of the transportation company nixed the rides, citing hazardous driving conditions.
Stephanie was in a panic. She and Anthony could hoof it to the Basilica, but what about the reception?
She'd planned the party at Glen Foerd's Victorian mansion to the last detail: The salmon and filet mignon, flowers and cake, the eight-piece band, and the personal touches - party favors and napkins, toasting flutes and guest book.
How could they let it all go?
While Stephanie's mom prayed for help from departed loved ones, Stephanie had a heart-to-heart with Anthony.
"He told me, 'I am going to marry you at 1 p.m. today,' " recalls Stephanie. "He said, 'Even if there's no one there but us. I can't wait to see you walk down the aisle. That's what this is all about. We're getting married.' "
"It put things back into focus," says Stephanie. "We decided to stay positive. No matter what, we were going to be married."
At 9 a.m., Stephanie called Ritz-Carlton concierge James Portner to ask if its restaurant could accommodate 70 people for a last-minute lunch.
He said, "I think we can do better than that."
While Stephanie started her bridal prep at the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton staff flew into action, piecing back together, in four hours, a wedding that had taken two years to plan.
"It was crazy," says Ritz food and beverage director Martin Mariano. "But everyone was jazzed to make this wedding fabulous for this wonderful couple."
They enlisted a Ritz staffer and his roadworthy SUV, which seats six, to transport all the guests to and from the church, so no one would miss the vows.
It took umpteen trips.
Since the Ritz ballroom was available, the reception would be held there. Staff worked things out with the florist, who happened to have a worker on site doing a bar mitzvah.
They located musicians and singers to shore up the eight-piece band, some of whose members couldn't get to the hotel.
Meanwhile, staffers from Glen Foerd manned a truck and drove Stephanie's personal wedding touches - and the wedding cake - into Center City in the howling mess of a storm. The cake arrived in three pieces, which the Ritz pastry chef reassembled.
When a guest slipped in the snow and ripped her cocktail dress, a Ritz employee realized that she and the guest were about the same size. She happened to have a neatly pressed black evening dress in her office, which she lent to the guest.
As for food, Mariano simply said, "Trust us on this."
The resulting menu: potato-and-leek soup, pistachio wintergreen salad, and chicken and mushroom risotto.
"I had no idea what I'd find when we got back to the Ritz after church," says Stephanie. "I started crying when I saw how beautiful everything was. I couldn't believe that total strangers would go out of their way for us. It was magical."
The staff knew that Stephanie and Anthony were sleeping that evening at the Four Seasons. So, during the reception, they took a photograph of the couple and placed it in a silver Ritz frame. Then they trudged eight blocks through 18 inches of snow to the Four Seasons and had the gift, along with a personalized wedding card from the Ritz employees, placed in Stephanie and Anthony's room as a surprise.
Four days later, Stephanie is still floating from the experience of it all.
It's not just that her wedding worked out OK in the end. It's that in some ways, it worked out better than she had planned.
Yes, she and Anthony had to pay for two weddings - "We'll be paying the bills for a while," she says.
But the couple felt so embraced by the love of people determined to save their day, it's impossible to see the event as anything less than perfect.
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