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Meet the Dudas: Father and daughter justices of the peace at the Drive Thru Marriage stop in Belchertown

  • Jonathan Hafer, Leticia Figueroa and their children, of Chicopee, arrive Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown, where Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda, at right, will marry the couple. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Newly married Leticia Figueroa, left, and Jonathan Hafer, and their one-month-old daughter Joylyn Hafer, all of Chicopee, say goodbye to Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda Nov. 3, 2017 after she married them at a Drive-Thru site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda, left, and her father Joseph Duda, also a Justice of the Peace, are shown Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown, where the younger Duda married Jonathan Hafer and Leticia Figueroa of Chicopee. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Following the wedding, Abaigeal Duda takes a few minutes to talk with the couple’s children, one-month-old Joylyn Hafer, left, Jayda Hafer, 8, Josiah Hafer, 3 and Landyn Carino, 6. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Abaigeal Duda says that even though she has conducted hundreds of weddings, it never gets old: “I have the best job in the world, I really do.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda, back, interacts with one-month-old Joylyn Hafer, left, and Jayda Hafer, 8, both of Chicopee, following their parent's wedding Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa of Chicopee, along with her one-month-old daughter Joylyn Hafer, says goodbye to Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda Nov. 3, 2017 after she married Figueroa and Jonathan Hafer at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa, left, looks on as her new husband Jonathan Hafer of Chicopee hugs Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda Nov. 3, 2017 following the couple's brief ceremony at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Joseph Duda, also a justice of the peace, stood by while Abaigeal conducted the wedding ceremony for Jonathan Hafer and Leticia Figueroa. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa and Jonathan, both of Chicopee, are married by Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda at the Drive-Thru Marriage off Route 9 in Belchertown while their children play. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Figueroa says that even through their ceremony was brief, the Dudas projected a warmth the couple weren’t expecting: “It felt like it was more of a friend doing it for us versus someone who we had just met.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda hugs Josiah Hafer, 3, of Chicopee, before marrying his parents Jonathan Hafer and Leticia Figueroa Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Abaigeal Duda says she gets emotional at the weddings she does. “It is a very big moment in a person’s life and every time I feel the weight of that and the beauty of that.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jonathan Hafer of Chicopee, left, says goodbye to Justice of the Peace Joseph Duda Nov. 3, 2017 following Hafer's brief wedding to Leticia Figueroa at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa, left, and Jonathan Hafer, both of Chicopee, are married by Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa, left, and Jonathan Hafer, both of Chicopee, are married by Justice of the Peace Abaigeal Duda Nov. 3, 2017 at a Drive-Thru Marriage site in Belchertown. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Leticia Figueroa and Jonathan Hafer wanted to get married before taking a trip to Pennsylvania for Figueroa’s grandmother’s 70th birthday. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

There are no church bells. There is no steeple. Leticia Figueroa, 25, is wearing a white dress, but that’s the only thing that’s typical about her wedding day.

She’s on the side of a busy the road, at the end of a dirt driveway, in Belchertown, standing next to a sign propped up by two wooden stakes that says in white print: “Enjoy a Drive-Thru Marriage Here.” The words are encircled by a red heart and there is a phone number listed underneath.

Her soon-to-be husband, Jonathan Hafer, 37, faces her, their eyes locked on each other, their hands interlaced. Just feet away, cars are whizzing by on Route 9.

The justice of the peace, Abaigeal Duda, 46, dressed in a black robe, reads from a paper printout: “I know you’ve sacrificed a lot to be here today,” she says, barely audible over the traffic sounds. Occasionally a vehicle slows down and lets out a series of honks. One woman pulls her car off the road, hops out and takes a picture.

Always enterprising

The scene may surprise the out-of-towners passing by, but those who live here have become used to seeing these roadside weddings. Abaigeal’s father, Joseph Duda, 88, started doing these weddings in the 1990s and, over the years she joined him.

Joseph says he can’t remember exactly why or when he decided to start doing this.

“He has always been very enterprising,” says Abaigeal. “When he was young he was an alter boy so he would attend all the weddings, so I suppose it was somewhere in the back of his mind.” He’s also been to Las Vegas, she says, and probably got the idea there.

The idea of a “Drive-Thru” wedding has a certain appeal to those who like the novelty of it, says Abaigeal.

“You end up getting audience participation — so it makes it so lively.”

Tears and a smile

When the honking stops, Abaigeal pauses before she continues: “Do you Leticia take Jonathan to be your lawful wedded husband?”  

A few more words are exchanged. Duda’s black high heel shoes buckle in the dirt a few times, her robe flails about in the wind, and she looks on as Jonathan slides a ring on his bride’s finger.

Figueroa, smiling, wipes away tears before she embraces her new husband with a kiss. “I pronounce you husband and wife,” Abaigeal says. Strands of her red hair whip against her cheeks. Her father, who she lovingly calls “Mr. Duda,” is wearing a cowboy hat along with his black robe, standing in the leaves looking on. Four young children, one of them carrying an infant in a carseat, swarm their parents. “Beautiful family,” Abaigeal says.

After hugging the couple goodbye, Joseph and Abaigeal Duda watch as the family piles back into their van and drives off.  “I have the best job in the world, I really do,” Abaigeal says.

Smooth-talking charmer

Joseph Duda spent 31 years working as a customer representative for United Airlines at Bradley International Airport in East Windsor, Connecticut before he became a justice of the peace in 1996.

He always had a charming way about him, a real showman, says his daughter. He brags that his ways of dealing with customer complaints about flight delays at the air port was to simply smile and say it was his “break time.” When he returned, he claims, the customer always seemed to have calmed down.

He is a smooth-talker, a good storyteller, who laughs at his tales as he tells them. 

“Life was easy,” he says. His wife of 56 years, Aleina, who died from colon cancer in 2012, was easygoing like him, he says, and a marvelous cook who could make anything. They raised three children at their home in Palmer where he still lives.

The land where he runs his wedding business is property tucked down a dirt road in Belchertown. There is a house on the property, barely visible from the road, where Abaigeal’s older sister, Dede Hielman, 59, now lives.

While they can’t be sure, they estimate that they’ve performed 400 weddings here. They charge $100 for their services.

“We are kind of crazy, but we always have a good time,” says Joseph.

Two peas in a pod

Abaigeal was the youngest child in the Duda household, and she and her father have always been close, she says. They banter and joke like old friends. “Between the two of us, we are kind of a good team,” she says looking endearingly at her dad.

Joseph Duda became a justice of the peace on a whim after he had retired from his career at the airline. He was working at the polls in Palmer one election day when someone there mentioned a justice of the peace license was available. Every area has a certain number of these licenses it can issue based on the population. Joseph decided to go for it.

His wife would help out with booking the weddings and deliver paper work to the Town Hall. Abaigeal, who studied American art, also helped out when she could. Over the years she had flexible jobs in administration, creating exhibitions and giving talks at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Then in 2006, Joseph told her that there was another opening for a justice of the peace. Abaigeal applied.

“They chose me. I don’t know why,” she says.

Quick and easy

Since then she’s worked alongside her father.

Now, she books the weddings, counsels couples on how to get their marriage licenses, write ceremony scripts, and delivers paperwork to the town clerk’s office.

Most people hear about the “Drive-Thru Marriage” site through word of mouth, she says, but Abaigeal also advertises on Craigslist — which is how Leticia Figueroa found them.

She texted the Dudas just days before the big day. The couple had planned to get married at the courthouse before a trip to their hometown in Pennsylvania for Figueroa’s grandmother’s 70th birthday, but they decided the wait time was too long. 

They expected a quick and easy ceremony, but were surprised at how warm the Dudas were. “It felt like it was more of a friend doing it for us versus someone who we had just met,” Figueroa said after the ceremony.

Over the years, the Dudas have seen a wide range of circumstances that bring couples to them.

“Whatever you need I’ll do it,” Abaigeal Duda says.

Most weddings are just a few minutes, the shortest was just 37 seconds, says Abaigeal. Sometimes people will literally stay in their car for the ceremony. 

The Dudas also will travel offsite or wear a particular outfit if requested, although they typically wear the traditional black robes.

Some people are looking to save money. Others are pressed for time.

In one case, a couple contacted the Dudas saying that the man had terminal cancer and his days were limited. He wanted to get married right away so there would be no confusion over inheritance after his death. Following the ceremony, the couple went straight to the hospital. Joseph says he gave them a ride. “I said, jump in,” he recalls.

After another wedding, the couple drove off in a stretch limo and stopped at McDonald’s down the street.

Despite the light-hearted atmosphere and the fact that she has done so many weddings, Abaigeal says she still gets butterflies in her stomach when she performs a ceremony. She says if the bride or groom starts tearing up, she can’t look at their faces, because she will start to cry, too.

“I still feel that excited tension that they are feeling — it is a very big moment in a person’s life and every time I feel the weight of that and the beauty of that,” she says. “It is exciting to be part of it.”

‘Have a good life’

Abaigeal says she enjoys running into couples years later, say in the grocery store, where people will say: “You married us.” She might not remember them, but that’s OK, she still likes to hear about how life has progressed since they met in front of the “Drive-Thru Marriage” sign.

Her father is a little less emotional. Joseph says he loves helping people, but he doesn’t get attached. He prefers not to keep in touch after the ceremony. “Alright I married you, we’re all done. Enjoy. Have a good life.”

But he’s not as gruff as he sounds there.

“It’s been a great run, really,” he adds. “I am very old and I married a lot of people, an awful lot of people. It’s been a good ride – Marvelous.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.