Hunter couple given wedding day for free

NICOLE McElhone and Santino Tonelli had only been dating for six months when their world was shattered.

The couple, who were splitting their time between their Tingira Heights and Gloucester homes, were told Mr Tonelli had bowel cancer and would require chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove the tumour.

“People asked me if we would stay together, but I didn’t have a choice – I was already in love with him, totally and utterly in love with him,” she said.

“There was no choice to make, he’s my soulmate. What he goes through, I go through.”

When former police officer Mr Tonelli was told the cancer had become terminal and spread into his liver and left lung, the couple decided to marry in a small and simple service, most likely at a registry office and in their jeans.

Instead, they were gifted last week with a church wedding and reception for 100 they describe as “more than we could have ever expected”.

Reverend Dr Kenneth Brown and his congregation from The Willows Uniting Church at Warners Bay – a minister and group the couple had never met – had only heard of the couple’s story a month ago, but filled their church with fresh flowers and organised a high tea.

Mrs Tonelli’s colleague Phoebe Dekeyzer and her family made invitations, decorations, table centrepieces and gave the couple a certificate for one night at the Crowne Plaza, Newcastle.

Mrs Tonelli’s hairdresser Elizabeth Gralton donated her services and supplied the cake.

Their friend Mary-Anne Sullivan organised for PixArt Photography to capture the day.

“We were overwhelmed,” Mrs Tonelli said.

“It was just so selfless, they had nothing to gain from it, they just wanted us to have a nice day – and they certainly gave that to us.

“We asked Reverend Kenneth what we could pay and he told us ‘Love is free – this is what churches do’.”

Mr Tonelli said he “still hadn’t come down” from the high.

Mrs Tonelli said marriage was always in their future, but the right time hadn’t arrived.

“We already had between us what some people who are married never get to have,” she said.

“I struggled a little bit changing my last name to be different to my son’s.

“But when Santino’s gone it’s all I’ll have of him.

“Walking down the aisle you have that feeling that every bride feels, then it hits you in the back of the head: I’m not going to have him forever like everyone else. He told me every Saturday will be our anniversary.”

Mr Tonelli completed his fourth round of fortnightly chemotherapy before the wedding.

When he feels well enough, the pair will hit the road on one of his much-loved motorbikes.

“I’m having another scan soon and hopefully that will show it’s stopped or gone backwards,” he said. 

“You’ve got to look at the positive side of things. When you give up hope, that’s your downfall.”