Sharon Honkus

Sharon Honkus (right), owner of Celestial Brides in Johnstown, poses with Kathryn Barger, a ranger at Rocky Gap State Park in western Maryland, and Mo, a 3 1/2-year-old American bald eagle.

Most days, Sharon Honkus can be found surrounded by a shop full of glamorous gowns and prom fashions, helping brides-to-be and trendy teens find the perfect look.

But lately she’s also been spending time with a different flock.

Honkus, the owner of Celestial Brides in Johnstown, has been devoting her free time to another passion: volunteering as a weekly tour guide at Rocky Gap State Park’s aviary in western Maryland.

It gives her a chance to share stories about bald eagles, owls and other orphaned or injured birds who found their way to the Cumberland, Maryland, sanctuary, she said.

“It’s become a passion – and an escape for me,” said Honkus.

“There are 14 birds down there right now – from vultures to bald eagles – and every one of them has a story.”

Honkus said she has been working with the birds as a volunteer for a year, and began handling summer tours once a week earlier this spring.

It’s a chance to spend time with the “majestic creatures,” she said – and to educate people about how easily the birds can be injured, or worse, by careless acts.

“Pretty much every bird ended up here because someone did something they weren’t supposed to, at one point or another,” Honkus said.

Roberto, a barred owl, was found by a hiker when he was still a fledgling, she said.

“And she decided it would be really cool to have him at home as a pet,” Honkus said.

Before long, the tiny owl grew into a full-sized raptor who craved a steady diet of mice, screeched loudly at night and outgrew the woman’s small Baltimore apartment, Honkus was told.

The owl ended up at the Rocky Gap aviary, she said. At 29 years old, it’s one of the facility’s senior guests.

The barred owl is one of a few creatures there that can fly, but its chances of surviving in the wild were a longshot because the owl grew up dependent on humans for food.

“He doesn’t know how to hunt on his own,” Honkus said. “He relates food to humans because he’s been fed all of his life.”

Other birds have been injured because they were drawn to busy roads, perhaps by litter, and ended up getting struck by cars, she said.

“The tour,” Honkus said, “is a chance to tell young people about how important it is to leave nature where you found it – and the consequences something like littering can have.”

She credits the Hays bald eagle webcam in Pittsburgh, which has lured millions of viewers since it was launched four years ago, for guiding her toward a love for birds of prey, particularly bald eagles.

At home, Honkus has added two roommates – a pair of cockatiels, named Coco and Dolce Gabbana.

Honkus said she remains just as passionate about downtown Johnstown, her business’ home since Celestial Brides first opened its doors in 1998.

At the time, putting her bridal shop downtown was a risk, Honkus said.

Johnstown was down to a handful of retail shops and only a small number of restaurants, she said.

Today, the shop is one of a growing number of downtown draws, and events such as the annual Christmas Tree lighting lure crowds downtown again.

“There’s a vibe here now that’s taking hold, and over the past five years, it’s really changing the perception of the downtown,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to have my business anywhere else.”

She’s humbled by the fact that Celestial Brides is marking its 20th year in business, a milestone she said probably wouldn’t be possible without a dedicated staff and a little bit of luck.

In the past few weeks, a fashionable sheath-style dress arrived at her store that included a long, detachable train over-top.

It was a 1990s-era throwback that was in vogue when she back first opened the bridal shop.

The fact that the dress is back in style once again is probably the surest sign of Celestial Brides’ success, she said.

“Fashion always comes back around,” Honkus said. “But it’s a blessing that we’ve been around long enough to see it.” 

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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