Coconut Grove church will mark birthday with wedding celebration.. (MPD vet Ray Martinez)
By Bea L. Hines
It rained the day Donna and Ray Martinez met during a funeral procession for a late member of Plymouth Congregational Church. Ray, then a City of Miami motorcycle policeman, was on duty to escort the funeral procession to the cemetery.
He remembers meeting Donna this way: “It was the last funeral of the day, and I stood outside the funeral home as the people came out. There were a lot of elderly in the procession. Then, all of a sudden, she walked out.”
On the slow, rainy ride to the cemetery, Ray struck up a conversation through the window — he rode alongside the car Donna was in.
To keep the conversation going, she said, “Oh, looks like you are getting wet.” And he said, “What’s your name?”
Delighted, Ray later headed home, went straight to the phone book and looked her up. “I said, ‘OK, let me try this.’”
One year later, to the day, they were married in Plymouth Congregational Church, where Donna has been a member all her life. In March, Ray and Donna Martinez will celebrate 29 years of marriage. They are the parents of Michael, Matthew and Mary.
At 10 a.m. Sunday, Ray and Donna will join others who were married in the limestone, mission-style sanctuary as it hosts Wedding Sunday, part of the historic sanctuary’s 100th birthday celebration.
Betsy and Brad Thomas met in the late 1980s at the reception of another wedding. “It was ‘like at first sight,’” Betsy said with a chuckle. “We had our first date on Halloween night,” and five years later, in 1992, they were married in the sanctuary.
Plymouth Congregational was founded in 1897 as Union Congregational Church on McFarlane Road in Coconut Grove. In 1917, a new sanctuary was built and the congregation moved to 3400 Devon Rd. Designed by New York architect Clinton Mackenzie, the sanctuary is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On Sunday, one of the honorees will be Mary Ellis, 88, who came to Plymouth as a 5 year old and stayed. She later was married there.
“I met my guy on a blind date, and brought him to Plymouth,” said Ellis, who in 1952 married Jim Ellis.
Mary Ellis grew up in north Coconut Grove as an only child. When she came to Plymouth, the church became her extended family. “I saw this building grow from a little rectangular building to the sanctuary that it is today.”
The church, as it is today, was expanded in 1955.
Ellis, the widowed mother of Beverly Ellis Keith and Alan Ellis, said the church is still her home. She serves as a volunteer and does history tours at the church.
The history of Plymouth Congregational Church is deeply intertwined with Miami-Dade County’s history. Former church pastors include Solomon Merrick, father of Coral Gables founder George Merrick, who served as chair of the church’s Board of Trustees and was instrumental in purchasing the land the sanctuary sits on.
The Plymouth campus is also home to the first schoolhouse of Coconut Grove, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“For over a century, we’ve married couples in this sacred, beautiful and inspirational space where we worship the Lord each Sunday,” said the Rev. Al Bunis, the church’s senior pastor. “On Wedding Sunday, we’re excited to welcome, bless and honor those who have celebrated their love here at Plymouth.”
“On Sunday, we will try to recreate what the church looks like during a wedding,” said Donna Martinez, one of the church’s wedding coordinators. “The scriptures will be about love … we want to recreate the feeling of why we got married … to bring back some feelings of love and of why we were drawn to Plymouth.”
The church is inviting couples who were married in the sanctuary to join on Wedding Sunday. The service will be followed by a reception in the Cloister Garden. Everyone is welcome.
Martinez said about 16 weddings a month are held at Plymouth. “Weddings here are more of a ministry,” she said. “It’s not just about the bride and groom, but we also minister to the people who come to the weddings.”
Ellis said: “This church is a stone structure ... the structure of marriage is what we are also celebrating.”