REAL BRIDES: Rochele’s Surprise Wedding

Rochele and John did the unthinkable… They pulled off a surprise wedding!  Guests were invited to what they thought was going to be an engagement party for the couple, who were supposed to be getting married at an island destination wedding.  Here is her story…


John and I are anything but traditional. I can’t say that I have dreamt of my wedding day since I was a little girl. I never imagined getting married in a church, with 8 bridesmaids, and everyone I knew in attendance. To be honest, that makes me sick just thinking about it. I lost my dad at a young age and have never really gotten over it. That scenario just makes his absence even more apparent. Don’t most women dream of their father walking them down the aisle and giving them away to the man of their dreams? Yes, that may be one small portion of the entire day, but that one small portion is the piece that would mean the most to me. I’ll admit, if John wanted a giant wedding, I would have talked myself into it, but that fact that he didn’t want it either was just another reason why we were meant to be together.

John and I were engaged and married in a period of 5 months. Our original plan after getting engaged, was to go away and get married. We found this awesome helicopter wedding package in St. John’s that included only the 2 people to be married and a helicopter pilot (who is also a minister) flying to an uninhabited private island where you get married with just the 3 of you there. That was exactly what we wanted.

 One night while we were talking with my sister and her husband, we mentioned this plan that we had. My sister couldn’t believe we would want to get married without having everyone there. We tried to make everyone happy by agreeing to at least have a reception to celebrate our marriage. Later, while browsing Pinterest for destination wedding tips, I came across an article about a surprise wedding. It sounded interesting and fun, so I did some more research and tried to figure out how you could possibly pull that off.

We would obviously be sharing that moment with every one of our guests – let’s face it, we all know that a very small percentage of people attend the actual wedding versus the reception – so why not make it something unforgettable?!

Pre-Ceremony photo - as guests thought they were celebrating at an engagement party.
Pre-Ceremony photo – as guests thought they were celebrating at an engagement party.

I needed to figure out how to get everyone to the venue. It needed to be an event important enough that we knew people wouldn’t skip on attending. We only wanted close family and friends, so it helped only having a guest list with 117 people. Most of the surprise wedding blogs that I read described luring their guests to the event in the same way: a formal engagement party. We knew this would work because by the time people would receive their invitations, they would have already heard that we were going away in the fall to get married.  Before we sent out the invitations, we already had a game plan for how we would deal with important people declining on the RSVP. We decided that we would just call them and try to talk them into coming, and if it really had to get to that point, we would just tell them why it was so important that they be there, and then immediately threaten their lives if they told a single soul that it was actually a wedding!! So how many of those phone calls did we have to make? Not a single one. 

By having dinner promptly at 6, we were hoping that would ensure that everyone be there by the time dinner was to be served. That allowed us to lock in the ceremony time for 6 pm. We made sure to encourage everyone to fill up on appetizers during the cocktail hour because, little did they know, they wouldn’t exactly be eating right at 6 pm.

Rochele chose red roses for her centerpieces
Rochele chose red roses for her centerpieces
Before the guests arrive for the "engagement party"
Before the guests arrive for the “engagement party”

For the pre-surprise portion of the party, I wore a simple black dress. There were private rooms there that we were able to use to store my actual wedding dress in, and also my brother’s class A’s. Since he was giving me away, I wanted him to wear his uniform, but I didn’t want to set people off and have anyone wonder why he was so dressed up for the party portion of it, so the both of us had to change before the actual wedding.

Most people have a prayer before dinner at an event like that, so we figured that would be the perfect time to let them in on the surprise. We totally left that portion to Roger (the Reverend). We had it set up so the DJ would make an announcement at 5:50 to let everyone know to take their seats because dinner was going to be served. That was also our cue to sneak off to the private area to change. At that announcement, my brother, myself, and my 3 girls snuck off to get me into my dress and my brother into his uniform. My niece also had to change into her flower girl dress. I’m still impressed by how fast we were able to do this, because we were all changed and lined up to go out before Roger even started making the announcement!

Roger started the prayer off with “So you know how you go to the store and you get those two-for deals? Like a 3-for-one deal or a 2-for-one deal? Like so many 12 packs of coke for so much money?….. Well today you get a three-for: today you get a good meal, you’re gonna have a good party, and we’re doing a wedding.”

The dance floor became the ceremony site.
The dance floor became the ceremony site.
Rochele was escorted down the 'aisle' by her brother.
Rochele was escorted down the ‘aisle’ by her brother.
The ceremony in progress, while guests watched from their tables
The ceremony in progress, while guests watched from their tables

Believe it or not, only a handful of people knew that it was actually going to be a wedding! The five people that served as our “wedding party” knew, my brother knew (he gave me away, and his wife was one of the 5 in the bridal party), and 2 close friends also knew (one is like a mom to me), because she was involved in every aspect of putting it together. Obviously the vendors knew as well (reception hall, reverend, DJ, photographer), so they could be prepared for it. That was it. We wanted only the people that were directly involved to know that it was actually a wedding. None of our parents or grandparents knew, the rest of my siblings who were not part of the wedding party had no idea… really! It was a genuine surprise to everyone else!

Name: Rochele Keeley

Date of event: 8-1-15

Venue: Both the ceremony and the reception were held at Forest Edge, Freeland, MI.

Colors: Black and gold

Wedding Dress: Rochele’s first dress (under the guise of an engagement party dress): Betsy & Adam black, mermaid gown.  Rochele’s wedding dress: Betsy & Adam lace, mermaid style dress in ivory. The fact that they were both Betsy & Adam was total coincidence – bought at different locations, at different times.

Shoes: Nude patent Steve Madden sandal

Rings: Fred Meyer Jewelers

Jewelry: A simple rose gold bracelet with very small rhinestones, and rose gold crystal drop earrings.

Bride & Bridesmaids Bouquets:  Satin ribbon hand-made roses from a seller on Etsy.  The bridal bouquet was white, and bridesmaids had red.  The boutonnieres were also made from satin ribbon, and from an Etsy seller.

Centerpieces: Red roses in assorted black vases, and some tables had tall vases with Baby’s Breath bunches.  All centerpieces were real flowers.

Linens & Chair covers: Traditional black chair covers with champagne gold sashes

Rochele's bouquets were hand-made satin ribbon roses from an Etsy seller.
Rochele’s bouquets were hand-made satin ribbon roses from an Etsy seller.


Black & gold theme, with red roses
Black & gold theme, with red roses

It was so important to us that we had a unique ceremony. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional “to have and to hold from this day forward” vows, but we didn’t want our guests feeling like they were at a wedding that they’ve been to a hundred times before. Most importantly, guest experience aside, we wanted it to be different.

First Dance Song: At Last, by Etta James

Wedding Song: Once in a Lifetime, by Landon Austin

What was your old, new, borrowed, blue?

Old: To honor my father who passed when I was young, I took one of his favorite sweaters and cut out 2 heart-shaped pieces of fabric that I attached to 2 different places in my dress: One was attached so that it laid directly over my heart, and the other was placed inside the bottom of my dress so that it would be easy to show for picture purposes.
New: My wedding dress
Borrowed: I had 2 borrowed items that were attached to my bouquet for the ceremony. My older brother (who also gave me away) lent me our father’s Saint Christopher that he wore every day, and my sister-in-law’s mother lent me her wedding ring that I also attached to my bouquet. Her ring symbolized a strong marriage (of over 40 years) between 2 special people in my life.
Blue: Essie’s “Bikini So Teeny” nail polish on my toes

The heart made from her late father's sweater
The heart made from her late father’s sweater
The heart made from her late father's sweater
The heart made from her late father’s sweater


Photographer: Amanda Cooper Photography (Bay City, MI)

Caterer: In-house catering at Forest Edge

Officiant: Roger Bauer, of Hope Lutheran Church (Rhodes, MI)

Florist: Paul’s Flowers (Bay City, MI)

DJ/ Band: In-house DJ at Forest Edge

Cake: Cupcakes done by Alicia Martin, owner of Leesh’s Pieces (Bay City, MI)

Lighting: Up-lighting provided by Forest Edge

Other goodies (photobooth, favors, etc.): “We chose to not have any additional favors (other than the photobooth). Many people do not realize that the photobooth serves as a favor, so we also posted a sign on the welcome table that let the guests know that we also made donations in their honor to both the American Cancer Society and the Choroideremia Research Foundation.”



Most Memorable moment: It may seem cheesy, but my most memorable and most cherished moment, hands down, would be the vow portion of the ceremony. All the way up to the wedding, John kept saying “I do not cry, so don’t be upset when I get through the entire day without shedding a tear.” We even joked with the Reverend that he was too tough to cry. Of course, he cried while we were exchanging our vows. I obviously would have still loved him if he actually made it through without crying, but seeing him so emotional makes me cherish those moments even more.”

You and your husbands’ wedding advice: Stand firm and make sure that you’re having the wedding that you want. We had quite a few people giving input on how to do things, and we made sure to politely tell them that we were having the wedding of our dreams, not everyone else’s. Rely on each other to de-stress and bring each other back down to planet earth when things seem overwhelming. At the end of the day, it’s supposed to be about the two of you.”

My sister, Shannon, asked me to promise her something. She said: “No matter how crazy things are, make sure that you and John take a few moments to stop and take everything in. Stop and look around the room. All of those people are there for you. Because you love each other. When you let that sink in, it’s a pretty incredible feeling.”

Which part of the process gave you the most stress? “The most stress came from waiting on the RSVP’s to come back to us! We knew that we did everything that we could to stress the importance of the event, but that didn’t ensure that we wouldn’t end up having to let people in on the secret if they declined the invitation. The invitations were very formal, and we also used word of mouth to make sure that people knew this would be the only time that they would be able to celebrate our “upcoming wedding” with us. There would be no additional celebration after the (fake) trip to get married. If you didn’t come to this “engagement party” then you would not have the opportunity to celebrate with us.”

Cake table

Betsy & Adam lace gown
Betsy & Adam lace gown
The "Engagement Party" invitation
The “Engagement Party” invitation



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