Shani Ashley married her husband Craig in a beautiful church ceremony on March 7. And, it was made all the more special as her mom Anne Sanderson walked her down the aisle and her dad Martin Sanderson conducted the service.
In 1993, Shani's parents divorced after her father decided to join the Catholic church as a friar. That left Shani and her mom feeling he "abandoned them for God."
It took a while for them to forgive Martin, but now they are celebrating as a family.
Shani exchanged her wedding vows with Craig at Our Lady and All Saints Church in Otley, West Yorkshire. With Martin, an ordained deacon, declaring them husband and wife.
Shani with Anne and Martin (PA Real Life/Collect)
“On the eve of the wedding, Dad and I had a heart to heart and spoke about everything we'd been through, how proud he is of me and how much he believes in me," she said.
“It was a very personal service, Dad talked about all we'd been through, also joking about Craig and I and having everyone in stitches. He was in his element and spoke for about an hour and a half. It was the proudest moment for him."
Martin when he first became a friar in 2002 on a visit to York at his mum and dad's house (PA Real Life/Collect)
Martin felt like his family had been sacrificed as part of his transition from a businessman to a humble man of the Church.
“I thought he was all consumed by God. It felt like God had taken him away from me," Shani said.
Martin's house with the red roof on the Isle of Arran (PA Real Life/Collect)
After blissful years as a family, Martin felt himself drifting away.
“I'd achieved everything I'd always been told would make me happy," he said. “I had a home, a family, a good job and money, but I felt there was something missing."
“So, I spent more and more time at work. We were winning big accounts, which was my focus. This caused stress and tension in my marriage."
But, leaving his life was not easy.
“Instead of facing my problems, I ran away, expecting them to just magically sort themselves out," he continued.
“I wore different masks to fit in. I'd be the man in the pub, getting the round in, or the successful businessman – but, I was starting to feel very down."
Shani while Martin conducts the ceremony (PA Real Life/ https://bigdayproductions.co.uk)
“I would sleep in the office and, eventually, in 1991, I moved back in with my parents as Anne and I were not getting on," he said.
“I'd become the worst thing to me -a weekend dad. I'd pick Shani, who was then three up, we'd have a lot of fun and then she would ask why I wasn't at home, saying, 'I need you Daddy'. She'd scream and cry. It was like ripping our hearts out, as father and daughter."
Martin felt drawn to the Catholic church.
Shani and Craig while Martin conducts the ceremony (PA Real Life/ https://bigdayproductions.co.uk)
And there in 1991, he had an epiphany.
“I remember walking and seeing a carved figure of Jesus hanging from the cross in front of me, tortured and suffering, and I just connected with it. I broke down and started to cry, 'Help me, Jesus,'" he recalled.
After that, Martin started studying the bible and praying. Finding religion, he felt he was stepping out of the darkness and into the light.
But, unable to repair his issues with Anne, in 1993 they divorced.
“At the time, I was reading scriptures about rich young men who'd given their wealth to the poor and it felt like that was what I'd been searching for," he said.
So, he sold his business, and gave his money and house to Anne and Shani. Then, he left for the Isle of Arran, on Scotland, where he stayed for two years leading a solitary life.
“I wanted to go away, miles away from anyone, so I could get my head around everything. It was hard for everyone to understand, me finding Christ and giving up all my money," he said.
“Although I was not living as a hermit, which is a vocation for some Catholics, I lived a hermit-like existence, in solitude, and mostly apart from the rest of society."
“It was the back of beyond and I had no phone or television. I really went back to basics."
Shani (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I reconnected with God, prayed, meditated, read the bible, walked in the forest, in the mountains and listened to the ocean," she said.
“When the money ran out, I supported myself by painting and making jewelry, which I sold at a craft fair in the town."
“And every Sunday I would go to the phone box to ring Shani. It was very painful. She didn't want to have a conversation with me."
Shani as a toddler on Martin's bike (PA Real Life/Collect)
During this time, Martin felt an affinity with the story of Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich man who sold everything to raise money for the church, then living as a hermit and creating the First Order of Franciscans.
He returned to York in 1996, to become a member of the Catholic Church.
Living with his grandma, he supported himself with odd jobs in cafes, bakeries and supermarkets. But Shani, found it hard to accept.
Martin and Shani when she went to visit him at the monastery (PA Real Life/Collect)
“Everybody was upset with him," she said. “I kept him at arm's length, as I was angry with him and didn't even talk about him to my friends."
“My mum had remarried and I was close to my stepdad, so they felt like my family."
And, it was harder when he left to become a friar.
“Then, when I was 14, Dad told me he was going to live in a friary in Oxford and study to become a Franciscan friar," she continued.
“It was a shock for me and I didn't really want to talk about it, I wouldn't tell my friends what was going on."
Spending a year of postulancy staying at the friary before he was officially allowed to join, Martin became a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, which is a distinct branch of the Franciscan order, taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
Shani with her parents (PA Real Life/Collect)
Meanwhile, Shani distanced herself further from her dad.
“She didn't talk to me properly for years. She did not want to know me," Martin said.
“But I promised I would always be there for her. We went through terrible times, but I knew it was the path we had to go down."
Martin in front of the statue of St Pio of Pietrelcina in Italy (PA Real Life/Collect)
While they spoke on the phone and exchanged occasional letters, Shani was not interested in any proper reconciliation.
“I withdrew from him," she said.
Craig and Shani dance on their wedding day (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I started to suffer from bad anxiety and was feeling very depressed," she said.
“I didn't feel comfortable with who I was. I rang my father – I never phoned him, he always phoned me – and I just broke down. He got permission from the brothers to be with me and said, 'I'm coming back'. He came to live with me and Mum, who had forgiven him, for a few weeks."
Craig and Shani (PA Real Life/ https://bigdayproductions.co.uk)
“We got to know each other properly, spending lots of time together," she said.
“When he returned to the friary I was heartbroken. I really felt close to him as a daughter."
After that, they enjoyed nightly phone calls and Martin, who was then living in a friary in Wales, was allowed by the order to invite Shani to stay.
“The first night was very eerie. It was in the middle of the Welsh hills, with no comfort. Everything was simple and basic, but I felt at peace there," she said.
“When he was showing me around, it helped me to understand him. We would meditate, go on walks and I felt so peaceful and light."
Shani and Martin (PA Real Life/Collect)
Shani visited her father more often, getting to know the brothers, and the friary soon felt like a second home.
“I began to talk about Dad to my friends," she said. “He always says the moment he knew I'd accepted him was when we went to a coffee shop and he was wearing his robes."
In the meantime, Shani's own faith was strengthening and she started going to church.
Shani as a baby with her dad Martin (PA Real Life/Collect)
Then, one night in a York bar, she met Craig.
They started chatting, exchanged numbers and swapped a few text messages, but nothing initially came of it.
“Six months later, I sent a message to a work colleague with the same name, but got Craig by mistake and we started chatting again," she said.
“We arranged to meet and got on so well. He was open, non-judgemental, a nice positive person and I felt really at ease with him."
Meanwhile Martin, became ordained as a deacon in autumn 2018 after 17 years as a friar, so he could perform baptisms, funerals, preaching and marriages.
And in March 2019, after three years together, Craig proposed to Shani.
Craig and Shani (PA Real Life/ https://bigdayproductions.co.uk)
To their delight, their chosen church then gave permission for Martin to conduct the service.
“Dad was over the moon. Working together to get our big day ready brought us even closer. I'd asked my mom to walk me down the aisle, so we were all so excited," she said.
“Mom said this was how it was meant to be. We are a family, not a strictly normal family, but she said she will always be there for me and my dad."
Martin has a a coffee in York in his robes (PA Real Life/Collect)
Looking beautiful in a traditional white dress, it was the most special day of Shani's life.
“At the reception, at Chevin Country Park Hotel in Otley, mom gave a speech and had everyone in tears," said Shani.
“She thanked Dad for everything and the journey they'd been on and her partner, Tony, who she has been with for five years, also spoke."
Martin conducts the wedding ceremony (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I arranged a special dance with Dad to Bruce Springsteen's Secret Garden, as he's one of his favorite artists. Then we danced the night away to Madonna and George Michael. He's not your typical friar!" she said.
“He's a breath of fresh air. He's been through so much himself and spoken to so many people, he's really able to empathize and is full of energy and positivity. I am so proud now to have him as my dad."
For Martin, the wedding day was perfect.
“There I am, an ordained deacon, waiting in the church in my robes, seeing the most beautiful person in the world dressed as an angel, walking down the aisle with her mom," he said.
“With all that we'd been through, it was the most precious moment of our lives."
Meanwhile, Anne is delighted that her family is united again.
“When Martin first realized that his vocation was with the church, it was a shock and I struggled to accept it. But as the years passed, it was clear that this was his calling and I supported him," Anne said.
“It was always Martin's dream to be able to perform Shani's wedding ceremony, which also gave me the honor of walking her down the aisle."
Martin as a young man in the 1980s (PA Real Life/Collect)
“It was as though we had come full circle and everything was exactly how it should be," she said.
For more information visit www.afriarsdaughter.com