by Kristen Dow
photography by Laura Ambriz
Driving slowly down East Gladstone in La Verne, my destination comes into view. With its dark red paint and delicate white trim, the tiny Bethany Wedding Chapel is an inviting and unusual feature of the residential area in which it rests.
Massive quantities of pink and white flowers border a red brick path leading up to the quaint one-story house that is adjacent to the chapel. Lacy white curtains can be seen through the windows, and a lazy black and white cat is napping on the window sill.
Rapping on the door, I wonder who will greet me on the other side. The door opens, and a petite elderly woman with cotton-candy-pink hair stares at me from behind the screen door, a puzzled expression on her face. I tell her my name and explain to her that I have an appointment at 11 a.m. Still she stares at me.
All of a sudden, a loud male voice from within the house bellows, “Let her in Miriam!” As Miriam swings the door open, I enter what can only be described as an oasis of the past. The pendulums of two antique grandfather clocks tick-tock back and forth, one in the living room and one in the dining area. The furniture is reminiscent of the 1940s — a solid oak dining table, an old wooden desk and comfortably worn couches and chairs.
“I sprained my ankle this morning, so I called my nurse Kathy, and she told me to use this to help,” the man says as he points to a bag of frozen corn, resting on his ankle which is propped on a chair.
“I’m Duane Loomis, L-O-O-M-I-S and this is Miriam Fiscus, F-I-S-C-U-S,” says Duane. “We’re married, but we have different last names.”
Duane then launches into an intricate story about when he and Miriam married, she adopted his last name. However, because Miriam is the original owner of the Bethany Wedding Chapel, having a new last name caused problems with her business license. “So we just got a divorce, got remarried and had separate names,” Duane concludes.
By this time, I understand completely that these wedding chapel owners are unlike any other individuals I have ever encountered. Attempting to steer the conversation back to the actual chapel, I ask Miriam when it was built. “Oh, about 25 years ago. It’s hard to remember,” answers Miriam. “Do you want to see the inside of the chapel? It’s really beautiful.”
“She has a bad memory,” Duane interjects. “She doesn’t remember a lot of things about the chapel, but she told me everything.”
I am now thoroughly confused until Duane clarifies that he is Miriam’s second husband. Her first husband was a reverend who built the house about 40 years ago. He and Miriam designed the chapel together, which Rev. Fiscus originally operated as a church.
Our conversation is interrupted by the telephone. Miriam answers. It is apparent that the caller is inquiring about having a wedding at the chapel. She informs the caller that the chapel can hold up to 85 people, and it costs $295 for two hours.
Duane picks up the cordless phone and interjects various information into Miriam’s conversation with the chapel patron. “It can hold about 85 people…yes, $295 for two hours,” Duane echoes as if the person on the other end of the line had not understood the information when Miriam gave it.
After the phone conversation ends, Miriam asks me again whether I would like to see the inside of the chapel. Not having the heart to let her know she had asked me the same question a few minutes ago, I tell her I would love to see it.
“There’s a bell in the top part,” Duane says. “The steeple? Yeah, I guess that’s what you call it. ” Miriam and Duane tell me that the bell is rung after the ceremony to announce the newly married couple. Duane says that lately the rope that is connected to the bell has been mysteriously pulled up onto the roof. He recently discovered the cause of this problem. “A raccoon was using the rope to climb up into the bell tower and then pulling the rope up onto the roof,” he chuckles. “Sometimes, little kids come by and ring the bell,” adds Miriam.
For the third time, she asks me whether I would like to see the inside of the chapel. “She’ll have to take you over there,” says Duane. “I don’t think I can walk very well.”
Miriam and I get up from the couch and wander over to the front door. Duane hands his wife a set of keys. After conferencing over which key will open the chapel door, Duane reminds Miriam to lock the doors when we are finished. Miriam and I stroll down the brick path to the chapel. She points out the rope attached to the bell and a swing on which brides may pose for photographs.
She unlocks the doors and swings them open. Solid wood pews line the aisle to the front of the chapel where two large silk floral arrangements in magenta and dusty rose lend colorful decoration to the scene. White lace curtains shade the windows, and small lights disguised as old fashioned gas lamps provide a warm glow.
Miriam anxiously asks me whether I like the chapel. “Oh, yes,” I reply. How can one not?
Couples have their choice of a piano, organ or stereo to musically accompany their ceremony, provided they supply the musicians and music.
Miriam and I wander outside, and she asks me whether there is anything else I would like to know about the chapel. I ask whether I can see the bride’s room, which is inside the house.
Miriam leads me back to the house, and I realize that she has forgotten to close and lock the chapel doors. I make a mental note to close them before I leave. As we walk back into the house, Duane is in the same position as he was when we left; the bag of semi-melted frozen corn still resting atop his swollen ankle.
“How was it?” he asks. “She wants to see the bride’s room,” Miriam informs Duane.
The bride’s room is a spare bedroom with a vaulted ceiling, a double bed draped with a delicate lace bedspread and more antique furniture. Floral wallpaper surrounds the room, providing a country-like atmosphere.
“Someone left this behind,” Miriam says, indicating a large, empty white box which must have held a wedding gown. ” I’ll have to call her.”
Several paintings adorn the walls throughout the bride’s room and the rest of the house. Miriam tells me that she has painted them. “I’m an artist,” she shyly confesses. “I’ve been since I was a little girl. I like pretty things.”
She shows me a painting of a beautiful young woman that hangs in the hallway. “That’s me when I was 17,” she says with a smile. I ask her whether she would mind telling me how old she is now. “Around 80 years old,” she confesses, “But I don’t feel old, and that’s all that matters.”
Yes, I think to myself, perhaps it is.
On my way out, I walk past the still open chapel doors and take one more peek inside. Then I pull the doors closed and make sure they lock securely. Flowers whisper at my feet as I walk down the brick path to my car.
In the midst of a somewhat overcrowded chunk of Los Angeles suburbia, here lies this sometimes overlooked symbol of tranquility. It is no wonder couples seek out a sanctuary such as the Bethany Wedding Chapel to affirm their loving commitment to one another for eternity. Those who discover its enchanting charm will not soon forget it. Nor will they forget the eccentric, yet alluring married couple, with different last names, who wish to provide more than just a place to have a wedding.