It was a day of big numbers Sunday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where an estimated 600 couples gathered for a mass celebration of marriages that have lasted 25 to more than 70 years. Church officials calculated that the 829 couples who registered to be recognized at the Jubilarian Mass have 36,722 years of marriage among them.
But it was the clear-eyed glimpses of enduring partnerships that resonated the loudest within the towering stone walls of the crowded Catholic church.
Victor and Marguerite Dawson sat in the front pew, renewing their vows in a hushed chorus with hundreds of couples behind them. They met at a homecoming dance when he was 17. She was 14. It was 1944.
“I went home that night and told my mother, ‘I met the woman I’m going to marry,’ ” Victor said.
His mom’s response?
“Go to bed.”
He did. But he married Marguerite, too, after a courtship that lasted through his time in the military and as he sped his way through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When he was in the service, she talked to me every day,” Marguerite said of Victor’s mom. Victor and Marguerite married a few days after he graduated. “We had gone together for four years — not lived together, gone together,” she said.
Five daughters followed, then 19 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. “He’s been a good, faithful husband. That means a lot,” Marguerite said.
They made their inaugural appearance at the special mass at the basilica in Northeast Washington on their 25th anniversary and came back every five or 10 years. Since their 50th, the couple have been driving in each year from Poolesville. This year was number 63.
“I’ve been married so many times, every time this thing” — the Jubilarian celebration — “goes off,” said Victor, a retired engineer. “I’m the most married man in America.”
The seating chart had a hierarchy, and toward the back of the church were Angela and Stephen Ray, British natives who live in North Potomac. Their 25th anniversary will be in October.
“We’re going to work our way down there. . . . We’re pretty amazed we made it this far,” Angela said.
“That’s the goal, to keep coming back, every five years, every 10 years, and get close to the front,” Stephen said.
But how do you make it from 25 to 50?
The Rays are thinking about that, and the time when their four boys, ages 14 to 23, are out of the house and the two of them are alone, older but with time to spend with one another. Angela said the humor and teamwork that have gotten the family this far are what she hopes will supply “the building blocks to be able to go into that next 25 years.”
“Keep the refrigerator stocked with food, would be my advice,” she said.
Sharing intimate anniversaries with so many others is not an idea that is universally embraced.
Kasia Kysiak and her grandmother sat outside the basilica eating grapes and pretzels during the celebration. The two Catholics had made an afternoon pilgrimage to see a representation of Mary originally from their native Poland.
“For me, I would do it in a small group, not in front of everybody,” said Kysiak, 23, an au pair who lives on Capitol Hill. “It’s like the same thing when you are seeing on the news everybody getting married at the same time. It’s not the idea for me.”
But Lucy Cohen, an anthropology professor at Catholic University who was attending a simultaneous Spanish Mass at the church, said the public embrace is the point.
“The symbol of all that is, God smiles on all of them and says, ‘Carry on,’ ” Cohen said. “I think there’s an idea that it’s been that glorious and that’s why they’ve been able to stand it. I don’t think it’s that at all. . . . I have a feeling people have depended on God and prayer to help them through. They would not be here if that did not have some meaning for them.”
David Gillis spotted Maria on the H4 bus in the District in 1949.
“I saw her, and boom,” David said. He tried to speak with her, but she wouldn’t have it. She was from Portugal, and old-school.
“I didn’t know him,” Maria said.
He kept looking for her on the bus, and he was finally introduced by a friend who knew her family. He needed her father’s permission to woo her.
“It was a medieval courtship,” he said. “I was chaperoned for two years.”
“We made it,” Maria said, leaning on a walker held steady by their son. “We made it big time,” he said.
“Six. Zero,” said David. Sixty years of marriage. “It’s called one word: love. We love each other.”
Then he reached down and kissed her.