Annie Labruzzo and Louis Guidry wedding

Mindy Dennis (top left) pronounces Annie Labruzzo and Louis Guidry husband and wife.

MANY WEDDING TRENDS COME AND GO — food items, color palettes, decor — but one that has continued to grow for the past few years is the use of officiants to perform wedding ceremonies. Experts posit a variety of reasons couples choose secular officiants instead of getting married by clergy members, including couples of different denominations or faiths, those who live alternative lifestyles and a move by young people away from organized religion. (There are officiants who also are clergy but perform weddings outside of the church and are open to alternative vows and services.)

More than 2.2 million couples got married in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. A survey by the wedding site The Knot found that 43 percent used an officiant, sometimes a friend or family member, to perform their ceremonies, compared to 29 percent in 2009.

"I think [couples] are looking for a personalized experience," says LaToya Papillion-Herr, a minister and owner of Waning Moon Weddings & Ceremonies (www.waningmoonweddings.com). If a couple goes to a church to get married, she says, "the pastor or minister or the priest is going to say whatever is their standard ceremony … and all of your guests have heard it all before.

"But when you work with an officiant, you are working with someone who is taking the time to know you and your partner and what you've been through and is creating an environment at the altar that is fun and memorable and feels good. It invites your guests to actually be present at the ceremony instead of just waiting for it to end."

The Rev. Tony Talavera, a minister and owner of the French Quarter Wedding Chapel (www.frenchquarterweddingchapel.com), has married 18,000 couples (including renewals) in the last 19 years. His clients cite finances, stress and family expectations as reasons couples seek his services.

"I think one is financial; we don't have a stable economy," says Talavera, who has a chapel couples can use for their ceremonies. "Also, what I hear is that the families put a lot of stress on [wedding couples] and it becomes very stressful to get married with a big wedding. It used to be, 'Daddy's little girl is going to have what she wants.' Now the couples are paying for it themselves."

Annie Labruzzo, an architect, married Louis Guidry on her best friend's porch in Abita Springs March 5, 2016. That best friend, Mindy Dennis, also was the officiant.

"We're not religious … so it didn't seem like us to go find a religious person to do it," Labruzzo says. "A judge seemed really impersonal, and that's not us either. We thought it should be someone important to us, who we admire and respect and who is in our lives on a regular basis."

Dennis, co-owner/co-director of Southern Magnolia Montessori School, became an officiant at Labruzzo's request but since has performed other marriages, some stemming from that first wedding. "When family members realized someone close to them can do the ceremony, they started calling on her, too," Labruzzo says.

Some wedding couples seek officiants who are open to or experienced in alternative ceremonies. Papillion-Herr has compiled small books for her clients with examples of different types of ceremonies she has prepared, from casual to funny to religious, and some that involve wedding guests. She also offers crystal divination, sacred blessings, unity ceremonies and other services.

"They really just want something that feels like them," Pappillion-Herr says. "They want to be up there with somebody that they feel is just as excited for them as they are, someone they will be happy to tell their story to." She adds that some couples are hesitant to share some details of their relationship (such as meeting on Tinder or having a first date in a bar) with clergy because they fear they may be judged for their lifestyles.

Officiants also benefit from destination weddings in New Orleans, since those couples likely wouldn't have close connections to clergy here. Among couples who married in the U.S. in 2018, 25 percent held their weddings outside the city where they lived, according to The Wedding Report, a website that compiles country-wide wedding statistics.

"People want to get married here," Talavera says. "They are in love with our city." He is urging officials to make things easier for couples by increasing access to marriage licenses (currently the state operates offices in Orleans Parish that close early and aren't open on weekends). He also has worked with state Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, to change Louisiana's mandatory waiting period between obtaining a license and getting married from 72 hours to 24 hours. That change went into effect in August 2018.

Papillion-Herr says 75 percent of her business comes from out-of-town couples who want a unique experience.

"What I found with destination wedding couples is that they appreciate being able to come to New Orleans," she says. "They're already coming here for the energy of New Orleans … and they feel like it's a more spiritual or metaphysical presence in a city that is known for that already."

Not all wedding couples stay in contact with the person who married them, but some officiants form lasting bonds. Talavera says he has maintained relationships with some of his couples, including one he married, then renewed their vows after 10 years and again after 15 years. Labruzzo's officiant is still her best friend.

"I was in a room with some people with half a dozen marriages between them," she says, "and they were trying to remember the name of the priest or the judge who married them. Only one of the half dozen could remember the name. I'm thinking to myself, … 'I know [my officiant's] first, middle and last names and the dates her children were born, and she's been through all the hard times with me.

"[Using her as an officiant] was the right decision for us for that very reason."