Going to the Chapel: Rainbow Chaplain Officiates Wedding for Son of Hospice Patient

(L-R) Rainbow Chaplain Laura Wessels with James Behnke, Susan Behnke Hammill, Mary Behnke, Chris Behnke with his new bride Allie Radcliffe (Behnke), Allie’s parents – Kathryn and Rick Radcliffe; Front – Don Behnke
Mary Behnke with her son Chris Behnke on his wedding day (Photos submitted)

JEFFERSON- Rainbow Hospice Care Bereavement Counselor/Chaplain Laura Wessels had never officiated a marriage ceremony before. But her first one will likely be a day she and the couple will always remember.

Chris Behnke and his fiancée, Allie Radcliffe, had their hearts set on a fall wedding in Austin, Texas. But Chris also wanted his dad Don to be there to see him get married. Don is a Rainbow Hospice Care patient and a resident at Alden Estates of Jefferson. Traveling long distances for him was no longer an option.

So Chris and Allie wanted to find a way to bring the wedding to him. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, there was no guarantee that would be possible.

Alden had started lifting visitor restrictions but wouldn’t be able to accommodate a huge ceremony. The guest list would have to be limited.

The staff at Alden agreed to let Chris and Allie get married in their chapel. With a location secured, the couple needed a minister or a Justice of the Peace to perform the ceremony.

Wessels has been providing Don’s wife Mary with pre-bereavement support services since the start of the pandemic, and when Mary told her about her son’s wedding, Laura offered to marry the couple. But Mary left the decision up to her son.

“I told her what was going on and Laura said ‘Mary, I’m going to offer one time. I’m not going to bother you with it, but I could marry them,’ ” said Mary Behnke.

Both Chris and Allie loved the idea and the wedding took place on Saturday, April 24 at Alden Estates at 2 p.m. Besides having both his mother and father by his side, the wedding also served as a joyful family reunion as Chris’s brother James and his sister Susan were able to fly in from the East Coast for the special day. Due to the pandemic, the family hadn’t seen each other in over a year.

“Because our other children are older, Chris was like our little surprise package,” Mary Behnke said. “It was really special that he wanted his dad included in the wedding and his brother and sister also wanted to be here. It was a great gift.”

Allie’s parents, Rick and Kathryn, also arrived from Texas to round out the wedding party.

As they were surrounded by an intimate circle of family, Chris and Allie exchanged vows and rings at the altar of the chapel. Wessels was happy she could be there to conduct the ceremony.

“There was no music or special readings, but it was intimate and beautiful and sort of casual,” said Wessels. “I thought it was a beautiful thing that Chris and Allie wanted to make sure that Don was part of their special day. I was honored to be a small part of their celebration.”

“It was very important for me, as his son, to have my dad involved while we still could,” said Chris Behnke. “I was inspired by my parents renewing their vows for their 50th wedding anniversary at Alden a few years back and figured this was something we could pull off as well. Family is very important to both of us. We felt this special moment was best celebrated with just our immediate family.”

The family then gathered for pictures in Alden’s courtyard and, with the help of his wife, Don joined in toasting the new bride and groom as everyone enjoyed a glass of champagne. The celebration wasn’t complete until they had dessert together.

“The whole thing just came together and was extremely special and very moving for us. I was just pleased to have Laura,” Mary Behnke said. “That made it even more special because she’s been helping me along. Everybody loves her. Everybody couldn’t believe how sweet she is and even the bride’s mother kind of mouthed to me during the ceremony how wonderful Laura was.”

It might not have been the traditional wedding that the newlyweds originally envisioned when they said “I do,” but the day turned out to be better they could have imagined as they begin their life together.

“We will remember and cherish the fact that we could share this moment with all of our parents and start this next adventure with their love and support,” Chris Behnke said. “I will personally remember seeing my father laugh and smile and be engaged with all of us. In particular, my dad (Don) reaching out to shake the hand of Allie’s father. I think that left a strong mark on both of our hearts.” 

“This group of people had not met before this day, but you never would have known it,” Wessels said. “They enjoyed getting to know each other, lots of conversations going on around me, and just so much shared joy in their wedding and everyone being able to be there for it. I felt like I floated the next couple of days, it was such a high!”

Even though Chris and Allie have already officially tied the knot they will hold another celebration in Texas in October with a larger group of family, friends, and coworkers. That will be more of a ring ceremony. Besides that to look forward to, Chris and Allie will always have the memories of that special Saturday in April when they first became husband and wife with their families by their side.

“My heart is still so full from the day and I couldn’t have imagined starting our marriage together in any other way,” said Allie Behnke.

“We’re both very thankful for Alden, as well as Laura and Rainbow Hospice Care for helping us make this ceremony happen and allowing me one more important life event with my father at my side,” Chris Behnke said.

(Contributed by Kenyon Kemnitz, Rainbow Hospice Care)

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