From the back paddocks of Lockhart to the canola crops of Cootamundra, more and more locals are becoming certified marriage celebrants to cash in on the fast-changing face of traditional weddings.
Near gone are the days of frou-frou frocks and hours-on-end hymns as couples – in all shapes, sex and sizes – turn their back on a traditional wedding.
Wedding bells of the church are slowly being silenced by the rapid uptake of people using civil celebrants, who last year performed 74 per cent of all Australian weddings.
Meet two of the Riverina’s very own celebrants. Though worlds apart, both have turned their passion for people into successful businesses that are only likely to grow as more and more couples turn to non-church weddings in an increasingly secular society.
Lockhart’s Janet Schirmer is no stranger to public speaking. A primary school teacher of 40 years, she only traded in the world of chalk and children for retired life three years ago – but that didn’t last long.
The 52-year-old decided to become an authorised marriage celebrant after watching her daughter be wed by a celebrant.
“I just thought, wow, it would be really nice to be a celebrant,” Mrs Schirmer said.
“I loved teaching, I would never have wanted to do anything else with my career. In this job, it’s kind of similar (in that) you’ve got to get up and talk in front of people, mix with different people.”
She has officiated countless weddings across the Riverina since establishing her business, Jane Schirmer Marriage Celebrant, three years ago.
Ten years ago, in the small town of just 800 people, the local priest would have been the only one able to officiate a wedding.
Now, Mrs Schirmer, who has lived on an outlying farm for 38 years, is one of two celebrants in the Lockhart area. It is a trend that she predicts will only rise as couples more than ever look to personalise their special day.
Of the 121,197 marriages registered in Australia last year, civil celebrants performed 89,861 weddings (74.1 per cent), compared to ministers of religion who officiated just 31,278 (25.8 per cent), according to the Bureau of Statistics.
In demand, Mrs Schirmer already has 15 weddings booked for the new year both across NSW and interstate.
“There is absolutely a rising demand (for us),” she said.
“I just think it’s so much more personal. Now, most brides want to have a more personalised wedding with a beautiful service. They are all unique.”
Mrs Schirmer said it is the bonds forged with couples on the first day of the rest of their lives that is most rewarding.
“I love meeting the people, the couples. I feel very honoured to be able to officiate people’s weddings. It’s not a job. It’s a full-time love. It’s just so special.”
Mrs Schirmer says she is among the majority of celebrants who are former teachers or retired professionals, but young Annie Scott is bucking all the trends.
Miss Scott grew up on the family farm in Cootamundra and moved to big-smoke Sydney where she works full-time in her dream job.
While working as a customer logistics planner at GrainCorp’s head office, Miss Scott finally scratched her itch to start a small business that allowed for opportunity both in the city and country.
She spent three months completing a Certificate IV in Celebrancy and a further three waiting for the Attorney General’s Department to approve the application before she became a Commonwealth-registered marriage celebrant in September this year.
The 26-year-old opened her business, Marry Me Annie, and already has seven bookings for the coming year, from Watsons Bay, Walgett and Warren to Yass, Nowra and Adelaide – a tally that is likely to rise under the growing trend to use celebrants.
“Today there is more freedom surrounding who you choose to be with for the rest of your life and I believe this freedom also applies to the type of ceremony a couple wishes to have,” she said.
“The rise of celebrants is a result of this, as a lot of people want to get married or exclude religion. The acceptance of gay couples and legalisation of gay marriage in other countries has contributed to the rise of celebrants because gay couple won’t get married in church.
“A lot of celebrants also do commitment ceremonies for gay couples and this is something I support.”
It was no surprise that family and friends were shocked upon hearing her dreams to become a celebrant. She loves her full-time job at GrainCorp and is passionate about agriculture, but those great loves are now served with a side of “I do”.
“There is no one in my social circle my age who is a celebrant and I had been to a few weddings with celebrants and I thought, wow, this is really something I could do. I thought it would add a real touch when marrying family and friends, but also allow me to expand my network when working with new couples.”
Miss Scott is loving her new business venture, from hearing the stories of how a new couple met and seeing their dreams of a special day become a reality in whatever way they choose.
“Weddings are such a happy time,” she said.
“For me, becoming a marriage celebrant is a privilege and a responsibility that I take great pride in doing.
“I want everything to be perfect for the couple and I want to make sure I have done everything I can to make it that way. It’s their day – some people don’t want any photos of themselves on their wedding day uploaded onto social media, whereas others have hashtags and selfie sticks at the ceremony and I think either is absolutely fine.”
These modern-day weddings are a far cry from those that filled every pew of a church just 10 years ago.
While Catholic Diocese of Wagga Bishop Gerard Hanna considers a decline in church weddings a fall-out from the wide range of choices available, he believes they still hold a place in society.
“As Australia continues to grow as a secular society, the trend towards non-church weddings should not be a matter for surprise,” Bishop Hannah said.
“For couples who wish to approach marriage as a Sacrament, emphasis is placed on the binding nature of the promises they give in the context of a sacred rite which speaks also of an openness to procreation and the absolute freedom the couples must exercise in coming to their decision to marry.
“At St Michael's Cathedral (in) Wagga, for example, an average of 49 weddings a year were performed in the last five years.
“In the previous five years, an average of 61 weddings per year were performed.”
Bishop Hannah clarified ministers of religion were not necessarily obliged to conduct a wedding in a place of worship.
Ministers of religion officiated the bulk of Australian weddings up until 2004, when civil celebrants performed 58.7 per cent of ceremonies.
The number of celebrants is likely to continue growing if the steady five per cent increase over the past four years is anything to go by.