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Brides & Grooms Camp Out for Chance at a Duke Chapel Wedding

Dedication and commitment are fundamental elements of any good marriage. Couples who desire a Duke Chapel wedding in Durham, NC must test these very principles long before getting married as they camp out in tents for days in hopes of holding their ceremony at the historic Duke Chapel.

Duke is no stranger to this sort of fanaticism, after all, this is the school where many students choose to camp out for days, even weeks, at a time to land tickets to the Blue Devils’ basketball games. While there is a different end goal in mind during the Chapel camp-outs, the reasons for coming are the same— these are die-hard fans, not of basketball per se, but of weddings at Duke Chapel. They can’t imagine getting married anywhere else.

Everyone at the camp-out has a different story, background, and reason for being there — ranging from local couples who have always dreamt of having a Duke Chapel wedding, to Duke alum who traveled from out of state, to a father who was filling in for his daughter, to a Duke student who was getting paid $100 a day to hold someone’s spot.

Southern Bride & Groom stopped by the camp on the final evening before sign-ups to meet these eager couples and to learn more about the process and their stories. Talented Durham wedding photographer Riley MacLean took some great shots of this fun and dynamic group, who were all smiles…even through the rain!Duke Chapel weddingsGoing to the Chapel

Of course, not just anyone can get married at this highly sought-after location. In order to schedule a wedding, blessing ceremony, or reaffirmation of wedding vows, the bride, the groom, or one of their parents or grandparents must be a current full-time Duke student, graduate, or a current full-time Duke employee. In 2013, the Chapel also extended wedding eligibility to current members of the Board of Trustees and to faculty and staff emeriti with 15 or more years’ continuous service to the University, and to their children and grandchildren.

On the first of every month, the Chapel accepts wedding reservations for that month the following year. Those who want to be married in July 2016, for instance, must be there to register on July 1, 2015.

Sara Clark is the event and wedding coordinator at Duke University Chapel. Although tenting is not organized by the Chapel itself, for couples with a very specific date in mind, she recommends camping out as the best way to secure a spot. According to one of the campers, three couples showed up Wednesday morning (the day of sign-ups), some with very specific dates and times that they needed and didn’t get because they didn’t camp out. For those who did tent, making arrangements to do so and making it a priority paid off as the majority got their first or second choice for a date.

First Come, First Serve

Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis and, on the first day of sign-ups, the Chapel accepts in-person reservations first, hence the tradition of camping out: the couple who arrives at the Chapel first and camps out the longest gets to choose their date/time first and it goes in order of arrival. After in-person sign-ups, the Chapel accepts reservations by phone and email based on the order the messages are received and based on the remaining slots.

“We never give priority based on the status of the bride or groom, or their parents or grandparents, within the University. The whole process is very egalitarian,” Sara notes.

The first wedding in the Chapel was in April 1933 for Marion Noell Lyon, the grand niece of James Buchanan Duke. Now it hosts between 70 and 85 weddings annually: up to three on Saturdays and up to one on Sundays during the summer. (It no longer hosts weddings on Sundays during the academic year due to the addition of a new choral evensong service). “We have hosted many weddings for couples whose parents and even grandparents were married here,” Sara adds.

The number of campers in a given month varies. Obviously, there are more people during the more in-demand months, such as May and June. Even though summer isn’t necessarily a busy time for Southern weddings, this particular July was unique in that it was the first time in a year that the sign-up was back on due to renovations the Chapel was undergoing in 2015. This July, a total of 10 couples camped out, with two more couples arriving very early to sign up on the morning of July 1.

Emma & MattTenting at Duke ChapelEmma and Matt were the first couple to arrive at the Chapel with a tent in tow, almost a full week ahead of the sign-up date. For Emma, there was no settling for anything less than a Duke Chapel wedding and there was only one date in July they could get married, so being first in line was more than an advantage…it was a must!

The first bride- and groom-to-be get to set the “rules” for the camp-out. Emma’s list was civil and fair, with the main rule being that you had to camp out overnight or risk being moved to the back of the line.Camp out to get married at Duke ChapelEmma grew up in Columbus, OH with a dad and grandfather who were heavily involved in basketball; she grew up watching Duke games. With grandparents living in Raleigh, taking her on regular visits to Duke, her infatuation with all things Duke grew stronger. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be married here. Emma and her fiancé, Matt, were set up by friends to be prom dates in high school; it seems serendipitous now that Matt plays football for Duke and will be playing out this 2015 season.

While they did have to wait a bit to get married while the Chapel was being renovated, all that waiting finally paid off. As first in line, they got dibs on their preferred July wedding date: July 9, 2016 at 6 pm. They already have their reception booked at Bay 7 and will be in the trusted hands of one of SB&G’s Preferred wedding planning companies, A Southern Soiree.

While Emma was somewhat reluctant at first about the idea of camping out because of the time commitment, she admits it turned out to be a really fun experience. Even with crazy summer storms passing through, complete with downpours and thunder, and snide remarks made by some passerby’s, bonding with other tenters and socializing with other Duke visitors made the experience less of a chore and more like a little party.

Every Couple has a Story

Chandler & TomDurham bride and groomSouthern Bride and Groom has a direct connection to Durham natives Chandler and Tom who went to high school with our co-publisher, Jenna! Chandler and Tom met in middle school and started dating after college.

Chandler always wanted to get married at Duke, though she admits, this was before finding out how complicated it would be. Nonetheless, she and Tom made the decision to camp out a few days prior to the sign-up when they saw other tents starting to pop up on the lawn.

Chandler is in a grad program at Duke until next May, so the timing of the Chapel renovations and her wedding date worked out perfectly. She’s even been able to work from her tent during the day before attending classes at night at which point her fiancé, Tom, takes over. “He has it better — he gets to hang out with the other tenters and drink beer at night. I just work all day,” she says jokingly.

Like Emma, Chandler was reluctant to camp out at first, but found the experience surprisingly pleasant. “The people are really nice. It’s also really funny to see the daily tours come through and the look of confusion on their faces. People start taking random pictures of the tents.”

Unlike some of the other campers, Chandler was waiting to get her ceremony date set before booking other wedding venues or vendors. It will be a relief to move forward with a clear date in mind.

Meghan & ZachGetting married at Duke ChapelMeghan and Zach met their freshman year at Duke. Meghan was a cheerleader and Zach a football player. As students, they remember occasionally seeing couples in tents outside of the Chapel. Since there is a huge camp-out culture at Duke, it never seemed that unusual to them. In fact, Meghan used to joke with Zach that it would be them one day…and she was right!

On Christmas Day, 2014, after dating for six years, Zach proposed in the Dominican Republic and the wedding planning began. “We met at Duke, and we fell in love at Duke; it seemed only fitting to start the next chapter of our lives at the Duke Chapel,” says Meghan.

The couple flew in all the way from Dallas, Texas, to stake out a camping spot and, luckily, even though they weren’t first in line, they ended up with their first choice! After their wedding at the Chapel, the couple will enjoy a reception at new downtown Durham venue, The Rickhouse.

Eliza & MattBride and Groom tent to get married at Duke ChapelMatt and Eliza met when he returned home from Duke after his freshman year and began a nursing research internship at UVA, where Eliza also worked that summer. After dating long-distance while attending different schools, the couple moved to Nashville together and Matt proposed to Eliza just one week prior to the camp-out! “We got engaged on Tuesday, took Wednesday to talk it over, drove from Nashville on Thursday, rented a tent from REI and secured our spot as tent #4,” says Matt, who goes on to say that even though he was feeling tired, the whole thing almost felt like a vacation.

As a third generation Duke graduate, getting married at the Chapel has extra special meaning for Matt and his family.

While camping-out and enduring several heavy downpours (resulting in one night sleeping in a half-inch of standing water) added an extra level of stress to the wedding planning process, Matt commends the school for rewarding people who exhibit the effort and commitment to getting married there, versus having to contend with people who have an inside connection.

Even though their engagement is still brand new, Matt and Eliza are off to a good start and have booked A Southern Soiree to assist with their wedding and reception at the Cotton Room in Durham.

Jenna & DrewCamping at DukeJenna and Drew, both from Colorado, are grad students at Duke. They met during their second week of classes at Duke while at a Graduate Christian Fellowship dinner in the Chapel basement, so it’s a place that holds extra special meaning for them both. “Along with taking our breath away with its stunning architecture, the Chapel was where our love story began and it will have extra significance being the place where our new lives together begin,” says Jenna.

Construction at the Chapel caused the couple to delay their plans by a few months, they are confident it will be worth the wait. And, even as sixth in line for the sign-up, they were able to snag their first choice for a wedding date – July 2, 2016, to coincide with a family reunion.

Jenna and Drew took turns sleeping in the tent each night since it was pretty small and they only had one sleeping bag. They also brought each other food and supplies as needed to make it more comfortable. “When the Duke Chapel wedding coordinator first told us about the camp-out, we felt pretty daunted about the idea of putting our lives on hold to ‘rough it’ it in a tent for a week, but fortunately, the rules established by the first campers, and the overall experience, was very relaxed. We really enjoyed meeting the other couples and sharing stories every night,” Jenna adds.

While the Jenna and Drew are still in the early stages of planning, they are almost finished with booking their reception at the acclaimed Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club. They are also considering Riley MacLean as a photographer after meeting him during the campout photoshoot!

Ashley & RikkiDuke Chapel weddingsAshley and Rikki are high school sweethearts who met at The North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Ashley attended for ballet and Rikki for music, and both discovered they were from Durham. Seven years later, Rikki proposed surrounded by a panorama of fireworks on Independence Day.

As Durham natives, Duke was always a part of their life, in fact, Rikki’s mom has worked at the University for over 20 years. He also enjoyed playing regular ensembles at the campus during high school. Ashley’s family, too, has an interesting connection—they have a hardwood flooring business and do the floors for Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Chapel’s 2015 renovations pushed their anticipated wedding date back about a year, but it’s really the only place they imagined getting married. “I think Ashley and most girls in Durham dream of getting married in such a beautiful location. Deep down, I think I always pictured getting married here, too. I grew up several blocks from campus and it just feels like home,” says Rikki. “It also feels good knowing it’s such a prestigious place and that not just anyone can get married here – it makes it that much more special.”

Having grown up around Duke, the couple was familiar with campus campouts and weren’t surprised to learn this may be what was required to secure a date at the Chapel. Rikki ended up setting up their tent in the middle of a hailstorm.

Like Jenna and Drew, this couple will have their reception at The Washington Duke & Golf Club and feel confident in all the services provided there.Tenting at Duke Tenting at Duke University in Durham, NCWhile every marriage is sure to encounter scenarios that are a test of patience and commitment, these couples are already off to an impressive start. We wish them all the best and look forward to hearing all about their weddings at Duke Chapel next July!

Photos by Riley MacLean Photography

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