For 30 years, Sue Gildea’s family has spent a week each summer vacationing in Sea Isle City — and this year’s trip offered much more than leisure time on the beach.
Gildea and partner Allison Coia married on the beach July 27, surrounded by about 70 family members and friends.
The Delaware County natives and Aston residents met about 25 years ago through the Overbrook Women’s Softball League.
Gildea, 47, a graduate of St. Joseph’s University, is a manager of customer operations and training, while Coia, 50, a former travel agent, is a personal chef and owner of Cook-A-Doodle-Doo.
Gildea said the couple’s relationship is grounded in the trust they have for one another and in their strong support system of family and friends, which has helped them face obstacles such as Coia’s diagnosis with MS.
“It’s about having fun and about enjoying life; that’s so important,” she said about the foundation of their relationship. “Sometimes people don’t realize that, hey, life has bumps, and some big potholes seem insurmountable and that they can’t be fixed, but working together and relying on a support group of friends and family can you get through anything and show you that it’s really not that bad.”
And, when conflicts arise, Coia said, they learn to pick their battles by focusing on what really matters.
“I think it’s understanding each other, and knowing each other so well that you know sometimes what arguments to get into and what battles you don’t want to,” she said.
The couple had long joked that they would wait to get married until all same-sex couples could.
“Sort of like Brad and Angelina,” laughed Gildea.
So when the federal Defense of Marriage Act fell last summer, Gildea began covertly ring shopping, with the help of one of Coia’s best friends.
Both women are members of City of Brotherly Love Softball League’s Stogie Joe’s team and Gildea, CBLSL secretary, planned the proposal for the league’s 30th-anniversary banquet at Citizens Bank Park last summer.
“I contacted the Phillies and said I wanted to do this proposal at the banquet because Citizens Bank Park is kind of a home away from home for the league,” she said. “I worked with the team and we got a tour of the clubhouse, the locker rooms and the dugout, and we were with our team and our friends, which was great. My daughter, Caitlyn, was there and knew about it. I proposed when we got to the batting circle.”
Gildea pulled off the surprise.
“I was shocked,” Coia said. “We got to the batting circle and somebody said, ‘OK, let’s take a picture,’ so I was looking around trying to make sure the logo was in the background and I turned around and she was on one knee. My mouth dropped. But it was so cool to be able to share that with our friends who were there, and not everyone knew about it. On the video, you can hear people saying, ‘Is this for real?’”
Wedding planning became real quickly, the couple said, as New Jersey legalized same-sex marriage just a few weeks after the proposal.
Because of their annual vacation tradition, they decided to pick Sea Isle City as the wedding destination.
Their guests filled three vacation homes and they said a number of their “crafty and creative” friends pitched in to help them create the perfect beach wedding.
The couple stayed in a house on the beach and walked together over the dunes to the ceremony.
“We came over the dunes and saw the people on the beach and it was literally breathtaking; it took my breath away,” Gildea said. “It was such a large group and that just was that first moment of really feeling overwhelmed that goes with becoming married.”
Hearing cheering and clapping from vacationers at nearby houses, Coia added, was also heartening.
“To have the support of all those people, who didn’t know us, and to hear them cheering for us, that just emotionally got me.”
Once friend and fellow Stogie Joe’s player Sean Joyce pronounced the couple married, the guests tossed miniature beach balls, instead of rice, a surprise set up by their good friends, Dan and Dan, who coordinated the wedding planning.
The couple and their guests returned to their house for a celebration, complete with music by Seamus Kelleher, a former guitarist for Irish band Blackthorn who, in the process of booking, Gildea learned has a lesbian sister. She set up the musician as a surprise for Coia and their many Irish relatives, including Gildea’s dad, a big Blackthorn fan for whom this year’s wedding trip was especially meaningful, as he missed last year’s vacation after a fall.
Coincidentally, Coia had also reached out to Blackthorn to play but hadn’t gotten a response.
After the wedding celebration, the couple spent the week at the shore for a “family honeymoon.”
The reality of being legally married hadn’t yet sunk in.
“We were on vacation and still with everybody and haven’t gotten back into the swing of things,” Coia said. “Right after the shore, we went to a family party and then to Eagles practice and have been running around. So reality might set in today.”
They’re planning a large reception for Nov. 1, where they’re looking to follow the laidback, celebratory nature of their beach wedding by encouraging guests to dress up in Halloween costumes.
“It’s all about having fun, celebrating life and love and I think we truly did that,” Gildea said.