Kennedy wedding church in RI lets visitors in to imagine the day

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 1961 file photo, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy leave St. Mary's Church in Newport, R.I., after Mass. The Rhode Island church, where the Kennedys wed on Sept. 12, 1953, is inviting visitors in to kneel where the couple knelt, listen to the music that played and imagine the day. (AP Photo/File)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The church where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier wed is inviting visitors in to kneel where the couple knelt, listen to the music that played and imagine the day.

St. Mary’s Church, in Newport, Rhode Island, was the site of the wedding on Sept. 12, 1953, when Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts. The couple often spent weekends and summers in Newport, where her family owned property. During those visits, including during his presidency, the couple worshipped at St. Mary’s, always sitting in pew 10.

People fascinated with the Kennedys regularly turn up at the church. Often they find the doors locked. The church typically isn’t open when Mass isn’t scheduled.

The Rev. Kris von Maluski wanted to welcome them in. He’s giving a presentation about the wedding, Tuesdays through October. He’s calling it “Return to Camelot .”

“I hear from people all the time, ‘I haven’t been to that church. I can’t get in,'” he said. “We wanted to be a bit more friendly, and contribute to the tourism of Newport, too. We’re doing our part to make Newport a nice place to come by adding another interesting thing to do.”

Maluski will talk about how elaborately the inside of the church was decorated, with vines and flowers wrapped around every column and arch. Locals went into the church after the wedding hoping to get a piece of history, and walked out with armfuls of flowers, he said.

He’ll discuss the controversial place where the photographer stood to capture photos of the couple kneeling. It’s clear from the angle that the photographer was in the sanctuary to the side of the altar, a place where only clergy can go, so they must’ve gotten special permission, Maluski said.

Evan Smith, the tourism director in Newport, said people come from all over the world to Newport and “know of this magical wedding.” They want to see where it took place, he said.

“Travelers today are really seeking authentic experiences. And for someone to come to Newport and say, ‘I sat in the pew in the church where Jacqueline Bouvier married John Kennedy, that is a real experience that people will remember for the rest of their life,” he said.

The Diocese of Providence saw this as a way for the church to reach out and connect with more people.

“I have approved of social and cultural events as a means of welcoming people to our Church, evangelization and outreach,” Bishop Thomas Tobin said in a statement Thursday. “It is especially appropriate given the history of Newport and St. Mary’s in particular.”

Maluski will show vintage film clips and tell stories of the wedding as recounted to him by local residents. The video includes an interview with Hugh D. Auchincloss III, stepbrother and lifelong friend of Jacqueline Kennedy, talking about the wedding before he died in 2015 in Newport. The organist will play music and hymns from the ceremony and the first dance song from the reception. Visitors can take pictures at the kneelers and pew 10.

The cost is $15. The proceeds will be used for the restoration of St. Mary’s choir loft and the preservation of the newly refurbished organ.