At Elkton Little Chapel, a fire still burns


ELKTON -- For Jack and Billie Taylor, matrimony proved yesterday to be better the second time around.

It was Jack Taylor and Billie Olkowski who came to Elkton last Valentine's Day to take their vows in the quaint Little Chapel, where thousands of couples -- including a few big names -- have entered into matrimonial bliss since the 1920s.

But when they pulled onto Main Street, they saw something that made their hearts sink.

The chapel was still smoldering from an early morning fire, sending the Taylors and several other couples across the street for a decidedly less romantic wedding in the courthouse.

"I thought it was a bad omen," laughed Mr. Taylor, 43, a building contractor from Delaware City, Del. "But it didn't mean anything. She had me, and she still got me."

"It was a little disappointing," said Mrs. Taylor. "It was so cold over there in the Circuit Court. It was just a room."

But yesterday, the chapel offered free weddings to those whose nuptials were moved last Valentine's Day. The Taylors celebrated a year of marital bliss by exchanging vows all over again.

"I was looking forward to it again," said Mr. Taylor. "I was single for 42 years. I was looking forward to doing it right."

Mr. Taylor, a few pounds heavier than he was last year, came dressed in the same black tuxedo he wore last Valentine's Day, with a black cowboy hat and boots.

His glowing wife was dressed in the same powder-blue wedding dress as before.

With wedding music blaring from a tape deck, the couple marched down the small aisle that has seen the likes of baseball legend Babe Ruth, entertainer Debbie Reynolds and former Watergate-era Attorney General John Mitchell, among others.

They said their vows a second time before the Rev. Karen Pasqualini, a non-sectarian minister who has performed thousands of weddings throughout the Delmarva Peninsula the last two years.

"I've done weddings on boats, on a pier and in a field," said Ms. Pasqualini, an Elkton native and part-time actress who has a small part in the movie "He Said, She Said."

"The thing here is that you get a feel for the tradition of this place," she said. "If the walls could talk . . . "

Within minutes, the Taylors had renewed their vows, exchanged rings and ended their second ceremony with a kiss.

They were the second of 33 couples married yesterday at the chapel -- and the only couple to come back after being disappointed last Feb. 14. Peering in on the ceremonies from the hall was the chapel's owner, Barbara A. Foster.

She bought the building 11 years ago with the idea of transforming it into a restaurant. But before she could go through with her plan, Cupid's arrow pierced her heart, and she fell in love with the chapel and its past.

"There was so much love and tradition here, I couldn't do it," said Ms. Foster. "This place is the answer between a big church wedding and getting married at the courthouse."

In the chapel's heyday -- the 1920s through the 1940s -- some 35,000 couples came to get married in Elkton every year, before a 48-hour waiting period was instituted.

Today, the chapel, which is open six days a week, averages about 800 wedding ceremonies a year. Couples pay $49 to $125 for the ceremony, processing the wedding certificate, the minister's fee and photos or videos.

The chapel's accouterments are spare -- candles, old wooden pews, a wreath and an altar.

Ms. Foster has applied for a small business loan to renovate the building, including the upstairs, which she would like to turn into a bed and breakfast inn.

That gives her hope for the future.

"The first three months after the fire, I didn't have a good feeling," Ms. Foster said. "Sometimes out of bad circumstances, good things happen."

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