City Hall is an unlikely place to witness the enduring power and beauty of marriage. Most people have a City Hall wedding because they want something simple. They imagine they will sign a few papers in a dowdy office and that's it.
The reality is something else altogether. City Hall has a little wedding chamber on the third floor. There, amiable officiants usher couples gently into matrimony. They go out of their way to make it a special moment. They play some music. They talk about marriage as a loving partnership. They encourage the suddenly serious people before them to take each other by the hand.
Eyes mist over, voices tremble. A mystery unfolds. The two emerge not just married under the laws of the Province of Ontario, but somehow transformed. "You leave this room feeling different," says Cyndy Neilly-Spence, who has performed 400 weddings at City Hall, the modernist landmark at Queen and Bay. "If marriage is out of fashion, it doesn't feel like it here."
She and her colleagues do 40 to 50 weddings a week. Some are spur of the moment, others arranged by family. Some couples arrive in shorts and T-shirts, others decked out in gorgeous saris or sharp dinner jackets.
Ms. Neilly-Spence has married three couples in which the groom had a terminal illness. She had a bride who announced to her watching parents that she was forming not a duo but a trio: she was pregnant. She had one groom who brought a funeral urn with a candle on top. He wanted his father, recently deceased, to be present in spirit.
Two men in their 70s who had been together 50 years decided that, now that it was legal, they wanted to be married. One was quiet, one gruff. The gruff one told Ms. Neilly-Spence that she made an event that he had expected to be tolerable at best into something unforgettable. Many couples come away from the chamber feeling that way.
George Zhang and Sherry Li, both in their 20s, arrive at 1 p.m. on a Monday, he in a business suit, she in a dark red dress and black heels. Immigrants from China, they met online through the fantasy game World of Warcraft.
Officiant Virginia Ceni greets them in a dark academic robe. After the glass doors of the spare, polished-concrete room swing open, she puts on some classical music and they walk side by side to meet her.
"We are here to celebrate one of life's great moments," she begins. "What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined together?"
The couple declare that they are entering freely into marriage. They repeat the vows read out by Ms. Ceni. They exchange rings. From now on, says Ms. Ceni in a lyrical cadence, "you will feel no rain." She reads a Han dynasty love poem.
The writer promises to be true to his love forever, "when it thunderstorms in summer and snows in winter." Ms. Li's eyes grow moist. Mr. Zhang reaches over and dabs them softly with a tissue.
Ms. Ceni asks them to join their right hands. She puts her hand over theirs. "By the authority vested in me by the Province of Ontario," she intones, "I now pronounce you husband and wife." The newlyweds take turns signing the registry at a small table, their two witnesses follow suit, everyone takes pictures – and it's done.
The next couple, Scott de Savoye, 51, and Abigail Montalvo, 26, have their 10-month-old baby with them when they arrive – his kids, 14 and 11, too. He reads her a poem about waking up to find his dream come true. She reads him one back, from the screen of her phone, about how it was destined that "I would be yours and you would be mine." When she says "I do," he pumps his fist in playful triumph.
The third couple, Birdavinder Khosa and Navjot Brar, both 27, are a portrait in contrasts. He drives a truck. She is an educational assistant. He is quiet. She has a mischievous glint in her eye. When Ms. Ceni asks her if she will take him as her wedded husband, she replies with a breezy "sure," leaving Ms. Ceni looking a little startled.
They met after their parents sent them each other's phone numbers. They plan to have a modest formal wedding in Punjab later – just a thousand guests or so.
Ms. Ceni asks them to foster a "tender mindfulness of each other." She encourages them – pro tip – "not to fail in the little graces." Perhaps taking the hint, Mr. Khosa gallantly drops to his knee to put the ring on his bride's finger.
Monday's last celebrants are Tariku Semunegus, 48, and Meron Ghebre, 34. He runs an Ethiopian restaurant, she is recently arrived from Germany. She wears a zebra-print dress and slips on a pair of spiky heels she brought in a bag. He sports a black fedora and silver earring. Their witnesses bring a plump baby boy who coos away as the two pronounce their vows.
They make it clear they don't want a big to-do. They've already had a wedding celebration. But even they seem a little shy, a little nervous when they join their hands and vow to love, cherish and respect each other.
Marriage is a leap in the dark, an act of faith in the future.
They are promising to face it together, come what may.
By declaring their commitment to each other formally, in front of witnesses – by holding hands and saying "I do," "I will" (or even "sure") – people find themselves changed, bound to each other in the eyes of the world. Two become one, and, with luck, both are the stronger for it.
You don't have to go a temple or a cathedral to understand that. You can see it every day in a little room at City Hall.