(Staff photo by Brett Eppley/beppley@madisoncourier.com)
(Staff photo by Brett Eppley/beppley@madisoncourier.com)
“CATHERINE SMITH.”

“WILL YOU MARRY ME.”

Catherine Smith had a sneaking suspicion her first trip to the United States would be one she’d never forget.

On Sunday, her hunch turned into a Main Street marriage proposal with her name in big letters on a theater marquee, church bells and a choir singing.

Smith’s new fiancée, James McLoughlin, brought her for a visit to Madison, the town he said is “like a second home to me.”

McLoughlin first came to the area in 2001 as a teenager with the Ulster Project – a group that brings young people from Northern Ireland to the states for a month each summer and focuses on fostering peace between Catholics and Protestants. Since 2010, the now 30-year-old has been back each year as a leader for the group.

Shortly after booking flights for this month’s trip to visit friends, McLoughlin laid plans for the proposal. Though the two had only been dating for about a month at the time, McLoughlin said, “when you know it’s right, it’s right.”

The two met working for the Kenelm Youth Trust in Alton, England where Smith lives, and not far from McLoughlin’s home near Banbury in Oxfordshire. After two years of working closely together with the organization serving the archdiocese of Birmingham, Smith made her move for a romantic relationship.

Soon, McLoughlin and Smith had met each other’s families and he’d told her parents of his intentions. When he attempted to get her out of her own parents’ home to find a private moment, Smith knew something was up.

She and her friends theorized a proposal was in the future, but weren’t sure of the right moment.

“One of my friend’s said America would be the perfect time. ‘If he doesn’t propose in America he’s an idiot’,” she said, laughing. “But you did so that’s OK.”

After meeting some of McLoughlin’s friends in Madison, Smith said it felt like she’d finally met the last of his family – making way for a potential proposal. Unbeknownst to Smith, late Saturday night, letters went up on the marquee of the Ohio Theatre.

“Maybe we’ll go for a walk Sunday morning? What do you think?” Smith recalled him asking, as if they hadn’t been on a walk each day they’d been in town.

“I was totally overthinking it,” he said.

The next morning, “We walked to get coffee at the Red Roaster and stopped on the corner when we were crossing the street,” he said.

“As we walked up the side of Shooter’s there was like, bells started ringing, we could hear a choir singing. It was like ‘ah’.”

A sign from above, or a perfectly-timed soundtrack trailing from a car’s window as it passed combined with a downtown bell tower keeping time?

“So I was looking ‘round and there was loads of traffic and all I could hear was just traffic,” she said. “It’s like, ‘where’s the choir gone?’ So I was paying no attention at all.”

Then “he physically turned me ‘round. ‘Look at that!’,” she laughed.

By the time she turned from the marquee, McLoughlin had manifested a ring box – the one that once held his mother’s engagement ring.

“I cried like a baby,” she said, laughing at her next move. “I called him an idiot and almost pushed him into the road.”

The two then walked to the opposite side of the marquee.

“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.” “JAMES.”

A bit of comedic relief – “which I thought was very you,” she said.

Since then, the couple have been fielding FaceTime calls from family pretending they were just as surprised as Smith – “my mom tried to act really shocked” – a sea of support on social media and well-wishers on the street.

The two are looking at dates in June 2018 for the nuptials, likely in a castle – a perk of their work connections.

By Monday morning, McLoughlin and Smith decided to put Main Street spectators at ease with an update to the marquee.

“SHE SAID YES.”