When Jeni Stepien walked down the aisle on her wedding day, it wasn’t her father’s arm she clung on to. Unfortunately, that simply wasn’t possible: 10 years ago Stepien’s dad was cruelly taken away from her in a brutal murder. But when it came to the biggest day of her life, she had never felt so close to him…
Stepien’s story begins with utter devastation and heartbreak, but it ends with a hopelessly romantic twist a decade later. And, of course, it includes a wedding day more special than any other.
In October 2015 Stepien agreed to marry the love of her life, Paul Maenner. The 33-year-old woman teaches at an elementary school, while her husband is a 34-year-old engineer. And for their nuptials the couple planned to hold the ceremony in a spot that is incredibly dear to Stepien’s heart.
The pair had selected St. Anselm church in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, for their special day. This was where Stepien’s own parents had been married some years before. And not only that, but the church is also situated just three blocks away from the very spot where Stepien’s father met his tragic end.
Since the day she got engaged, all Stepien could think was, “Who will walk me down the aisle?” And then, her fiance had an idea that at first seemed truly bizarre. He suggested that “Tom” Thomas do the honors – despite him being a man who was barely known to the family and someone whom Stepien herself had never even met.
The tragic tale of Michael Stepien’s death begins in September 2006, when the head chef finished his shift at a local restaurant and began his journey home. As he made his way through the streets of Swissvale, the cook made the fateful decision to take a shortcut through an alleyway. And it was there that he was approached by 16-year-old Leslie L. Brown.
Brown was armed with a gun, and he used it to coerce Stepien into handing over his valuables. But then events took a devastating turn for the worst, and Brown shot Stepien in the head at point blank range. The victim later died in hospital. Brown, meanwhile, showed no regret for the crime he had committed. In the end, he was convicted of second-degree murder and handed a minimum sentence of 40 years, plus at least another three years for firearm offences.
In the hospital, Stepien was losing his fight for survival, and his family had to come to terms with the fact that that he was dying. Amidst all the agony and the shock, however, they knew one thing: they didn’t want his life to be taken in vain. And so Stepien’s wife and two daughters decided that they would donate his organs to someone in need. And one person in need of a new heart was Arthur Thomas.
Thomas had been diagnosed with a heart condition known as ventricular tachycardia 16 years earlier. But as he told the New York Times, “In order to get to the top of the transplant list, you have to be really hurting.” It’s thought that he was actually within days of dying when he received a miraculous call saying that a donor had finally been found.
And so through the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, Thomas was given Stepien’s heart – and a new beginning. Furthermore, he was able to contact the family to whom he now owed his life. He told the New York Times, “Once I had my transplant, I, of course, decided I would write a thank you to the family.”
The two families remained in contact, too. They exchanged Christmas cards, sent birthday gifts, emails and letters, and even spoke on the phone every four weeks. But the two families never considered actually getting together in person. Until, that is, Stepien got engaged.
With Stepien fretting over who would walk her down the aisle, then, it was her husband-to-be who proposed that she contact Thomas, who was also known as “Tom.” Stepien told the NY Times, “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it would be so incredible to have a physical piece of my father there.’”
And the more she thought about it, the more Stepien began to think that maybe the idea wasn’t totally crazy after all. She told the Washington Post, “I thought he would be the perfect person because he has a piece of my father living within him.”
But Stepien knew it was a lot to ask of someone. She told The Huffington Post, “My fiance suggested I write him a letter; that way Tom would feel in no way obligated or pressured by my request.” And so the bride-to-be penned a heartfelt plea to Thomas, asking if he would be willing to give her away. And less than a week later she received a call.
Thomas told The Washington Post, “[Stepien] said, ‘Is there any chance you’d consider walking me down the aisle?’ I said, ‘Oh, there’s a big chance.’” But there was one person whose blessing he still needed before he could commit: his daughter, Jackie.
Luckily, Jackie was all for the idea. And so the retired college adviser traveled all the way from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, to Swissvale, Pennsylvania. And there, he met the bride for the very first time on the eve of her wedding. Unsurprisingly, it was an emotional moment for everyone.
“Just hugging him made me feel close to my dad again, which on this day was perfect. It was what I needed.” Stepien’s sister, Michelle, told CBS Pittsburgh. And Stepien told The Washington Post, “This wasn’t just about me. It was about making my mom, sister and Tom see everything had come full circle.”
As Stepien prepared to walk down the aisle, she grabbed Thomas’s wrist so that she could feel his pulse beating clearly. Thomas told NY Times, “I thought that was the best way for her to feel close to her dad.” And at the altar, too, she pressed her hand against his chest. “That’s her father’s heart beating,” he said.
“I had a life to live because of him. It was important for me to do this very small thing for her,” said Thomas, who also took Stepien’s first dance. “What greater honor could a person have than walking the daughter of the man who’s given his heart to him.”
And in tribute to her truly remarkable day, Stepien later shared this emotional post on Facebook: “To be able to bring my dad home and have him at my wedding was an absolute dream come true. I was just so thankful dad could be here with us today in spirit and a piece of his physical being as well. That really was special for us.”