The Island Destination Wedding a MetroCard Swipe Away

Last weekend at Paul Choi and Ashley Austin Morris’s wedding in a little stone church on Roosevelt Island, there was the sort of giddiness in the air that you might expect to find at an actual island destination wedding. That’s because most of their guests, despite years of living in New York City, had never stepped foot onto Roosevelt Island, the residential waterfront Manhattan community sitting in the East River.

“I took the cable tram here once and then I went right back,” said David Wodka, a groomsman. “I never thought there was anything noteworthy on Roosevelt Island. But now that I’m here, I can see why they picked this venue. It’s beautiful, and you can see people jet skiing on the water.”

The ceremony was held at the Sanctuary, a wedding and events venue that took over this old church on the island’s north side over two years ago, rescuing it from ruin. With a leafy outdoor dining space that offers a plumb view of Manhattan’s skyline and an Instagrammable concrete pier that juts out into the East River, the Sanctuary has since become an unlikely matrimonial hot spot. Its pitch is that it is a destination wedding within city limits, reachable via a scenic tram ride from Midtown for the cost of a MetroCard swipe.

After vows were exchanged that sunny afternoon, the couple danced out of the church to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “How I Got Over” as their friends trailed behind them. While they posed for pictures on the gravel driveway, a sea gull dove into the brackish waters behind them to devour a fish, and the distant drone of the F.D.R. Drive hummed through the air. A shipping barge passed by as a server offered guests hors d’oeuvres.

Well, maybe it wasn’t Barbados, but it still hit the spot.

“My friends were so excited to take the tram here,” said the bride, Ms. Morris, an actor and stand up comedian who lives on the Upper East Side. “For so many New Yorkers, getting away isn’t an option, but this place feels like a getaway. And we all get to go back home tonight.”

In the 1800s, it was called Blackwell’s Island, and it was used by the city as a repository for asylums, hospitals and a penitentiary. It also housed the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which the journalist Nellie Bly infiltrated to expose its inhumane living conditions. In the 1970s, Roosevelt Island was developed from the ruins of those sites into a middle-class residential community, and the early residents of its Mitchell-Lama apartment buildings espoused a pioneer spirit. They planted a community garden, hung hammocks on trees, fished for striped bass in the river and biked along its Main Street, which still sees little traffic today.

The Sanctuary’s church was built in 1920s to serve Metropolitan Hospital, and after the hospital moved in the 1950s, a chaplain lived in its rectory for years. Then came Dayspring gospel church, which was evicted in 2019, and then arrived Frank Raffaele, a Queens-born businessman and former employee of the city’s Parks Department who saw potential in the space, despite its being overrun with cats and raccoons.

With a partner, Alfonso Biondi, Mr. Raffaele initially opened the Sanctuary as a beer garden and speakeasy, but it didn’t take off. After he hosted a wedding bash for a young local couple, however, he reimagined his venue’s concept. The Sanctuary is now booked almost daily, Mr. Raffaele said, and he has inquiries as far out as 2026.

“Somehow, we’ve become this wedding hot spot, and it’s due to the island’s mystique,” he said. “Roosevelt Island has been having a moment lately, so we’re benefiting from that. People check into the Graduate Hotel and spend three days on the island, like it’s Jamaica or Cancun, with our wedding as the big main event.”

Mr. Raffaele was referring to Roosevelt Island’s recent wave of trendy revitalization. Graduate, a boutique hotel that boasts a rooftop lounge called the Panorama Room that serves caviar nachos, arrived two years ago. A yoga and barre studio, Island Om, also appeared. Before that, Cornell Tech’s shiny campus opened.

But Mr. Raffaele said that the Sanctuary’s popularity was also because of its affordability. Whereas a 100-person wedding in Manhattan might cost around $50,000, which covers food, beverage and venue, the Sanctuary can cost half that. He described his clients as “creatives and insiders” who appreciate a good deal, such as actors, dancers, musicians, journalists and Broadway professionals.

“The creatives always come first,” he said. “We’re not attracting bankers and society people yet because we’re not on their radar yet. They want Cipriani and Tavern on the Green. Sure, it’s great to have the cachet of those places, but they don’t have my view. Maybe we can be like a Cipriani one day.”

The Sanctuary has been largely welcomed by locals, but its arrival initially stoked the kinds of worries that can arise when change comes to any small waterfront community. There were concerns about noise and the fate of a cat sanctuary abutting the church.

“There was some distrust because we’re outsiders,” Mr. Raffaele said. “This is a place that gets tense with old-timers because the cherry blossom festival gets too popular. So I’ve always had to be respectful, and it took a while to pierce the veil. There was even a blog that didn’t like us.”

One post from that blog, The Roosevelt Island Daily News, had groused: “Popular picnic tables and outdoor grills are only yards from where weekend parties will likely send tipsy visitors wandering along the West Promenade. Blaring music overtaking your family get-together? Who’s in favor of public urination over the seawall?”

But two years later, the venue appears to have won over skeptics, and Mr. Raffaele made sure to help safely relocate that cat sanctuary nearby. “Some of those people are now our biggest supporters,” he said. “We host events for the senior center here and always make sure to give them a good price.”

Judith Berdy, the president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, is a longtime local resident. In an interview at the society’s visitor center kiosk, which sells red tram toys and copies of Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” she agreed that the Sanctuary had settled into the neighborhood.

“I once lived in Manhattan, and unless you died and began to smell, no one would even notice you were dead,” Ms. Berdy said. “Here, it’s not like that. We know our neighbors. It’s like a small town. So yes, some of us have been here a while, and sometimes we have comments. But they’ve respected the church’s history and they’re agreeable with neighborhood groups.”

After the couple was hitched at the Sanctuary last weekend, and the wedding party grew lively, golden hour descended on the island. In a park opposite the church, locals began setting up lawn chairs, cracking beers and firing up barbecue grills. While Mr. Raffaele guided guests to dinner tables, a sun-wrinkled man wearing shorts approached him.

“Could you please get me some olive oil?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Raffaele said.

“I caught a fish, and I’m cooking it.”

Mr. Raffaele fetched him a cup of olive oil from the kitchen. As the bride and groom prepared to dance the night away, the man went to go grill his fish.

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