RALEIGH, N.C. -- Friends and family traveled from all over the country for the wedding of the couple who, everyone agreed, were meant to be together.
But instead of entering the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart to laughter and wedding bells Saturday, the guests were handed a program for a memorial service.
Father Salvatore Busichio shared the heartbreaking news: Groom Chris Raynor, 28, had been killed in a car accident less than four hours before he was to be married.
Raynor, an East Carolina University graduate who worked at a construction company in Raleigh, was heading to breakfast with two of his groomsmen on the cool Saturday morning when their vehicle was hit by a car that ran a red light at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Westgate Road. Raynor, who was sitting in the back seat without a seat belt, was ejected from the car. He was hit by a third car.
Police charged the driver of the car that ran the red light, James Howard Early, 52, of Asheville, with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.
In a hotel room about seven miles away, bride-to-be Karen Taylor was sipping champagne and celebrating with her bridesmaids.
Raynor had sent her a text message earlier that morning.
"He started off my day with a text message saying, 'Yay,' and he went on with the text message, saying, 'I'm so ready,'" she said through tears to WTVD Saturday night. "And I think he is ready. I think he is ready for heaven."
The news was paralyzing.
"We were all with Karen getting ready, and we were very excited and happy," maid of honor Abby Jacobs said. "When we got word, everybody was in tears and in shock."
In an hour, the Saturday service went from a wedding to a memorial.
Busichio, who was to officiate the 11 a.m. service, said one guest almost fainted when she heard the news.
"I've never heard anything like this before, and I've been doing this for decades," he said.
But religious leaders quickly came up with a 35-minute memorial service. Taylor, who hadn't yet dressed for the ceremony, didn't plan to attend at first, Busichio said.
"She was going to go home, but I said to her, 'You must stay. You will regret it if you leave,'" he said. "She was so valiant, and the service was beautiful."
When the groomsmen who had been in the car with Raynor arrived, they took their seats in one of the wooden pews and were inconsolable. Nobody expected Taylor, a first-grade teacher at Sanford Creek Elementary, to rise and speak. But she did.
"She gave a beautiful talk. She was very calm," Busichio said.
Relatives of Taylor and Raynor were too upset to talk on Sunday.
At the rehearsal dinner the evening before, Raynor had spoken passionately about Taylor's strength.
"She started her speech by saying, 'Last night, [Chris] told me I was a strong woman, and he's giving me strength now to speak,'" Jacobs said. "She was so brave, and I knew she felt like that's what [Chris] would have wanted her to do. It was like he had taken over her body a little."
Her words left the roomful of loved ones speechless.
Family and friends didn't cancel the after-ceremony reception at Caffe Luna downtown. Instead, they tried to celebrate Raynor's life. It was getting unbearable for Taylor, though, so the bridesmaids took her back to the hotel.
Jacobs introduced the two to each other at her birthday party three years ago. The pair hit it off immediately but spent six months traveling back and forth between Raleigh and Sylva, where Taylor lived after graduating from Western Carolina University. It took some convincing, Jacobs said, but Taylor agreed to move to Raleigh.
Warm and sincere
Friends said Raynor was worth it.
"He's like Mr. Rogers if you X out all the corniness and nerdiness," said groomsman Andrew Bowman, Raynor's best friend since eighth grade. "He has a very gregarious personality. He was warm, sincere, and he was a people pleaser."
Raynor, who went to Leesville High School, cooked great ribs and loved extreme sports like rock climbing.
"He looks like Chris Farley, but the hilarious thing is that he's one of the most athletic guys I know," Bowman said.
And he was completely smitten with Taylor, Bowman said.
"He always put Karen first," Bowman said. "He is the epitome of the type of guy you want dating your sister or daughter."
Proposal over pancakes
But he was nervous about proposing. He asked Bowman and his friends for advice on finding the right ring. He finally popped the question in November over a pancake breakfast.
"Every day they woke up ready to conquer the day," Jacobs said. "It was so amazing that two people with that zest for life had found each other."
The couple often went to farmers markets and parks with their dog, Charlie.
Today (Monday), they would have set sail on a honeymoon cruise to Key West and the Bahamas.
sadia.latifi @newsobserver.com or 919-932-2002