Inver Grove Heights woman with Stage 4 breast cancer woman gets the church wedding she’s long wanted – Star Tribune

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Sandra made the tamales.

Normita took care of the veil.

Kim sewed the wig.

A stranger gifted the dress — through tears.

A priest agreed to officiate, when many others wouldn’t.

A community manifested Maria Carmen Morra’s wish: To marry the love of her life, in the eyes of her God.

Maria wanted to fulfill her sacrament and have a Catholic wedding with her beloved Antonio, the father of her teen son and already her legal husband of 17 years.

But now she was sick, and every penny spent on a wedding would be one less to save for her ongoing care. And as a divorcée, getting married in the Catholic church would require time and energy, two things she didn’t have much of.

When her friends learned of Maria’s dream, they combined forces to make it happen. Maria, they said, we have to make it special. You need to look beautiful.

Maria, 52, is eight years into her journey with metastatic breast cancer. On her worst days, she struggles to climb out of bed, beaten down by pain or fatigue from chemo treatments she endures every 21 days. The journey, so unjust and yet familiar to so many, has ravaged her body and thinned out her hair. Just weeks ago, she was in a body brace and couldn’t walk.

Antonio has scaled back some of his work at a local dialysis center to cook and care for her, clean the house and drive her to medical appointments.

The Morras’ story is not the kind featured in fairy tales and rom-coms. It’s a slow-smoldering love that has crossed continents and has been strengthened with every test of devotion. Both are immigrants — she from Acapulco, Mexico; he from Naples, Italy. They met serendipitously when Maria, by then living in Minnesota, joined an online chat forum looking to practice her Italian.

“I never thought I would love him this much,” she says. “I have a wonderful husband.”

And she’s been blessed with a network of friends that have helped carry her forward in the face of precipitous health.

Taking care of others

On her best days, like when I visited Maria in her family’s suburban split-level, she is spry and up-and-at-it. She emerges from bed to greet me and my colleague, photographer Liz Flores, in a white summer dress and a yellow cardigan. Her body has been responding well to a new treatment.

A whirlwind in the kitchen, Maria starts to serve us platters of cut pineapple, berries, bagels and Mexican pastries.

“I’m going to take care of you,” she announces, smiling out from under a chic shoulder-length bob wig.

That’s something Maria has been saying for years. A former family worker with South St. Paul Public Schools, she guided children and their families who needed help navigating health care, immigration, housing instability, you name it. It wasn’t uncommon for them to knock on her door in Inver Grove Heights or call with questions and paperwork. She wasn’t above begging priests or community nonprofits to lend a hand. With just a little help, she’d say on the families’ behalf, they’ll make it.

Many of those families are now close friends. A mostly Latina sisterhood, also consisting of neighbors and former colleagues, have become her squad of angels. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to have a ride-or-die crew who drops off homecooked meals on your doorstep or delivers just what you need without having to ask, you know these kinds of women. They didn’t let Maria and Antonio pay a cent toward their wedding.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the caring,” she says. “They protect me so much.”

Friendships are indeed protective. I’m reminded of a 2006 study that found women with breast cancer who have at least 10 good friends had four times the chance of surviving than those who had no friends. Friendships were more potent in the women’s recovery than even a spouse.

Kim McMonigal, who has lived across the street for nearly three decades, says people are eager to show up for Maria because she does it so selflessly for others.

When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, Maria was depressed. McMonigal said she had to ask her three times to join her for a pedicure as a way of coaxing her out of the house. She likened her typically optimistic friend to a drooping flower that would take only a little bit of sunshine to perk her up.

At the nail salon, Maria bounced back after feeling a sense of purpose again. She sprang to help a nail tech, offering her advice and resources. “She was blossoming back to her old self,” McMonigal said. “She’s probably the nicest, kindest, most generous-spirited person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

McMonigal also takes her to doctors’ appointments, scribbling down notes and asking a lot of questions. “I advocate for her because sometimes I feel as a woman of color that she’s not always been listened to,” McMonigal says, “so I don’t let anything slip by.”

A determined priest

Maria never would have chosen cancer, but it’s made her resilient. Having survived a double mastectomy, radiation, chemo and a daily cocktail of pills, she never takes a day for granted. “Life is a labyrinth. You never know what it will bring you. Where is the entrance? Where is the exit?”

When she prays, she reasons with God. She tries not to be greedy. I know I have to go, she has said over the years. Just give me a chance to grow up my children.

Faith, she says, is what keeps her alive. A convert to Catholicism, Maria decided a couple of years ago she wanted to marry Antonio in the church. But several priests weren’t willing to marry them; the religion discourages divorce. Maria had married her first husband in the early ’90s; they remain good friends and raised a son together. Maria and Antonio needed to prove that Maria’s first wedding wasn’t a Catholic service (and therefore, not valid in the eyes of the church), and that her ex was baptized as Catholic.

In Rev. Scott Carl at St. Odilia in Shoreview, the couple found a compassionate ally determined to kick away obstacles.

“It almost took some detective work,” he said, recalling the decades-old paperwork needed to green-light the wedding.

The sacramental minister for the church’s Latino community, Carl met Maria a couple of years ago during COVID and was struck by her effusive personality. “Her smile radiates,” he recalled. “The mask could not hide her joy.”

The couple planned the wedding in less than three weeks. Maria’s friend, Normita, persuaded her to check out a wedding dress she eyed on Facebook Marketplace. They entered the seller’s house in Maple Grove, and when Maria tried on the long-sleeved lace gown — a magical fit — everybody’s eyes watered. The seller had recently lost her mother-in-law to cancer. She told Maria she looked beautiful. She insisted that Maria take the dress for free.

On May 25, buoyed by her sisterhood, who handled everything from food to flowers, Maria walked down the aisle at St. Odilia’s, assisted by her older son, Leo. Antonio was waiting for her, his eyes pooling with tears. Age-old vows took on a new meaning when Maria and Antonio promised to be faithful to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Friends encircled the bride and groom with a rosary that formed an “8,” the infinity symbol, a sign of their persisting love.

“If the priest starts crying, it’s not a very helpful thing,” Scott told me. “But certainly my heart was moved.”

This moment was everything Maria dreamed of. The village who babysat her boys, drove them to school, escorted her to the doctor and fed the family to lighten Maria’s load helped choreograph her late-in-life wish.

“I have this illness, but God didn’t leave me alone. He has given me the most wonderful angels, the most wonderful friends,” she says. “Love can make a big difference in this fight.”

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