Toronto·GO PUBLIC

'Brutal' wedding by United National Church minister creates extra paperwork

The United National Church, which claims to ordain people online to legally perform marriages, is being blamed for ruining the wedding of a young Ontario couple.

Church falsely claims it can legally ordain ministers online to perform marriages anywhere in Canada

Church falsely claims it can legally ordain ministers online to perform marriages anywhere in Canada 2:34

Latest

  • Nov. 28: ServiceOntario has launched a formal investigation into United National Church.
  • Nov. 28: United National Church has shut down its Canadian website.

An investigation by CBC News's Go Public has revealed that ministers from a group called the United National Church  have been performing marriages that aren't necessarily recognized in some Canadian provinces.

Newlyweds Casey and Jessica O'Donnell at first thought they just had a terrible wedding ceremony with awkward pauses and errors. But upon learning more about the man who officiated their ceremony, they're wondering if it was all a bad joke.

"It was brutal. The ceremony anyways. It was painful," said O'Donnell, who lives with his wife in a community just north of Peterborough, Ont..

After setting their wedding date, they were having trouble finding a minister who wasn't already booked for the busy August weekend this year.

Eventually they turned to online listings site Kijiji out of desperation. That's where they say they found the man they thought was an ordained minister.

"He started out half decent and then kind of started dropping the ball. He dropped the rings. He stumbled over our names — he just drew a blank for a good chunk of it," said O'Donnell.

"I could not believe what was happening. It felt just surreal. And, I mean, of course it was embarrassing," his wife added. 

On mobile? Click here to see a YouTube clip of the O'Donnells' wedding ceremony

But if that seemed surreal, what the O'Donnells didn't know is that they were in for a much bigger shock. 

After a call from ServiceOntario, the couple discovered that the wedding ceremony wasn't just badly done  — it also wasn't official.

The man who performed their ceremony was not a legally ordained minister in Canada and was not legally allowed to marry them.

"The woman on the other end of the phone, you could tell, she really felt bad that she had to be the one to inform us … and I have to say it didn't come as a complete shock considering the way the ceremony had gone," said Jessica O'Donnell.

The O'Donnells said the man told them via text message he was certified by the United National Church.

Jessica and Casey O'Donnell appear on their wedding day, as the unofficial minister (centre) conducts their marriage ceremony. (Family photo)

On its website, the United National Church claims anyone can become an ordained minister in Canada and "lawfully perform marriages for your family, friends, or anyone in your community." 

The website also states, "Our Minister’s Licence is Valid across Canada."

The problem is, that's just not true, according to Cynthia Vukets with the media relations department at ServiceOntario.

"United National Church is not recognized as a religious organization in Ontario … so people who receive a minister's licence from this organization are not permitted to perform marriages," she told Go Public.

Other provinces including Alberta and B.C. said the same thing. So-called ministers ordained by United National Church cannot legally perform marriage in those provinces either.

Retiree disappointed after buying ordination package

About two hours west of Peterborough, in Barrie, Ont., Ann Doige also has a history with United National Church.

She doesn't know Casey and Jessica O'Donnell, but she understands what they're going through.

Ontario retiree Ann Doige signed up for online ordination through the United National Church. (CBC)

"To me it's disgusting that they are hiding a scam. To me it's like a money grabber from people who say they believe in God and they are Christians."

Doige has spent a lifetime helping others. She worked with children with special needs for most of her professional life. 

When health issues forced her to retire, she wanted to find something else to do.

"I still had a need to help people and do what I could to feel like I had a purpose, and I just thought this would be a great way to carry on with something new," she said.

She searched online for a way to make that happen and found the United National Church website.

"It really looked legitimate and I was kind of excited to go for it and do it. 

"I didn't know if other people had used this certain website, but I knew of other people who become ordained online and did marriage ceremonies."

On its website, the United National Church offers three "ordination packages" ranging from $80 to $140. 

On mobile? Click here to watch a United National Church promotional clip

Doige took the least expensive option. Two weeks later, her official ordination package arrived in the mail.

The packages include a variety of official-looking certificates, diplomas and licences, and even include a plastic clergy parking permit.

Doige said she eventually realized she should check with ServiceOntario to make sure this was legitimate. 

"I received a phone call from that office from a woman who said that it was not legal for me to perform weddings," said Doige.

"The church wasn't recognized by the government and they hadn't registered with the government. I was really disappointed."

The 'Wedding Officiant Parcel' is sold on the United National Church website for $79.99. (United National Church)

Since then, Doige has been trying to get her money back. But so far, she can't get anyone from the United National Church to return her call.

"I'm really disappointed. And the more they ignore me, the more I know they are not for real," she said.

CBC calls, emails, camera crew fail to find church

Go Public tried to contact the United National Church through the email link on its website and by calling its toll-free number.

The woman who answered the phone identified herself as Giselle, a receptionist for the organization.

After asking her some questions, we realized that just tracking down the organization's location would be tough.  

Here's just part of that conversation:

Go Public: (Can you tell me ) where is your office located?

Receptionist: I just have a PO box. It's in Atlanta, Georgia.

Go Public:  Do you actually work in Georgia then?

Receptionist: No, I'm not in Georgia myself. No.

Go Public: Where is the reception located?

(Pause)

Receptionist: This is Westminster, Colorado.

Go Public: OK. Colorado. And do you know — is there a place where church members go to worship?

Receptionist: Honestly, I don't have that information.

Go Public also sent a CBC News crew to the address listed on the United National Church's website, an office located in downtown Toronto.

But no one there had ever heard of the organization.

So, what happens next?

ServiceOntario is now actively warning people about United National Church and looking into what options it may have when it comes to dealing with the organization. 

To their relief, Casey and Jessica O'Donnell found out their marriage can be legally recognized, despite the issue with their minister.

But the couple still have to go to family court and apply for an "order of validity" to ensure their marriage is official in the eyes of the province of Ontario.

They said they know of at least two other couples who were married by the same minister.

Ann Doige is still trying to get her money back. 

But, she said, more important than the money is a chance to warn others about this organization, claiming to be Christian, that has left a lot of people feeling ripped off.


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