Cave of Candles
A Cave of Candles / by Dorothy V. Corson

Chapter 12

The Missing Empress Eugenie Crown

While perusing the Sacred Heart Church file, which led to the discovery of Sorin's Grotto, my attention was drawn in that same category to a folder marked, "Crowns, Description and theft of."(97) I made a mental note at the time to go back to it when I'd concluded my search for evidence of Sorin's Grotto. Now seemed a good time to check it out before I renewed my search for evidence of the 1870s Grotto at St. Mary's. I opened the folder and was surprised to find a description of a robbery of crowns from the church in 1886. I had not heard of it before.

The South Bend Tribune reported, "Bold Burglary At Notre Dame." I read it with interest. It told of the theft of two crowns from the church during the time the chapels were being added:

From other sources I learned the large crown, weighing 52 lbs, created in Paris, was originally intended for the Our Lady statue on the Dome. "It was the gift of 30 persons. It represents the fifteen mysteries of the rosary on blue enameled pictures. The names of the contributors are engraved about each picture. In addition are fifteen decades of crystal beads attached to the lower part of the crown. A smaller crown is of solid gold, studded with precious stones and inlaid with pearls. It rests on the head of the statue of Mary Immaculate. It was presented by the Empress Eugenie of France in 1866."(99) Napoleon and Eugenie had given many valuable gifts to Notre Dame over a period of years. It was their hope that Notre Dame would become an outpost of French culture in the new world and the gifts were to help that dream come true.

Both these crowns, among other gifts, were brought back from France by Father Joseph Carrier in 1866. After the statue of the Blessed Virgin was solemnly blessed, the two-feet-six-inch crown created for the twelve-foot statue was taken by Sorin to Rome, on August 30, 1866, to be blessed by the Pope. The request was honored and the crown blessed by Pope Pius IX on September 18, 1866. However, upon Sorin's return, it was decided that the crown was too perishable to be left to the elements and a decision was made not to use it as originally intended. The statue was never crowned; instead, the crown was placed in the college parlor to be viewed by the public. Later, it was transferred to the church along with the Eugenie crown and thereby escaped the fire.

During the 1886 robbery, by a quirk of fate, two off duty policemen seeing two suspicious men about to board a train out of town arrested them. The crowns squashed beneath their jackets fell to the ground completely shattered. The smaller crown was at first thought to be the Eugenie crown, but turned out to be the $100 solid silver crown. The larger crown, considered irreparable, was eventually restored by a Chicago silversmith and reposes to this day in the Sacristy Museum.

The Forgotten Crown

In the same folder, beneath this newspaper story, was another entitled "The Forgotten Crown." I began to read it and found it triggering a long ago memory of former Notre Dame president, Father John J. Cavanaugh and the day he told me the same story fifteen years ago.

He had been retired and was sent to Holy Cross House a year before he died. We were enjoying our usual stimulating conversation during one of my weekly visits there when he told me the story of the missing crown. At the time, I assumed it was college folklore, yet it was such an unusual story that I never forgot it, as I've never forgotten Father Cavanaugh.

He had an unforgettable personality that enveloped you with warmth. And the day of his funeral(100) was just as unforgettable. Like a winter fairyland, the campus was blanketed with freshly fallen snow, the branches of every bush and tree embossed with snowy glitter.

Tom Stritch in his book, My Notre Dame, speaks of Father Cavanaugh in the same glowing terms:

Father Hesburgh and I were discussing Father Cavanaugh one day and he told me the first time his father met him he made the same observation. He said he had never met another man like him. I knew what he meant. I was introduced to Fr. Cavanaugh by a Holy Cross House nurse shortly after he arrived there. He charmed me the first day we met. We were in the midst of a stimulating conversation when something moved me to ask him a question that just popped into my head. "Fr. Cavanaugh," I said, "I've always wondered what Catholicism believes about predestiny." He caught me completely off guard. With that engaging smile of his, he looked at me with a twinkle in his black Irish eyes and smoothly sidestepped the question with: "Well I believe we were destined to meet." From that day on until his death we were "providential friends." It was more than six months before I learned who Fr. Cavanaugh was. He was definitely not a man impressed with his own importance.

Some time later, during one of my regular visits to Holy Cross House we were having a serious conversation and I quoted a poem to him. When I finished it he smiled at me and said, "That's nice. You wrote it, didn't you?" Taken by surprise, I had to admit that I did, and I asked him how he knew. "Because," he said, "it expresses your philosophy." He asked me if I still wrote verse and I admitted that I hadn't written anything for more than six years. That the inspiration to write it had come out of the blue. I knew nothing about poetry and had no interest in it before. It lasted four years, and was gone as suddenly as it had begun. All of which convinced me that it hadn't come from me, but through me -- to me. (I feel the same way about the prose in this narrative.) As we parted company, he urged me to try again. There was no other way to describe it. I left aglow with the warmth of his personality.

The feeling stayed with me the rest of the day and on into the evening. I kept asking myself what it was about Fr. Cavanaugh that made him so endearing. I went to bed with the question still gnawing at me and the next morning I awoke with the answer. There was only one way to put it, he exuded love, unconditional love toward everyone, regardless of their age or their station in life. I wrote my first poem in six years and I called it "What is Love?" Following it, came another with the realization of what it was about Fr. Cavanaugh that made him so universally loved: He left you with an afterglow and it stayed with you even when you weren't with him:

Sweet Afterglow

Just as bewitching and charming
As the sunlit sparkle,
Of a rippling, glittering wayside brook.
Is the sweet afterglow
Of a warm and welcoming I-Like-You look.


Seeing the story he told me about the missing crown in print some fifteen years later, I began to wonder if it really was a true story. I had no reason at the time to question it either way, true or false. I simply took it as more of Father Cavanaugh's great story telling. It seemed a general consensus at the University Archives that the forgotten crown story in the folder, printed in the Scholastic in 1953, was no more than a campus legend, like the Washington Hall ghost. However, in reading it and remembering Father Cavanaugh's story, I could only think it was almost too fantastic a tale not to be true.

Having come this far as an archival detective, I knew I couldn't let it rest until I proved it for the record one way or the other. And though not directly related to the Grotto, it was associated with the Blessed Virgin. The crown had graced her statue in the church for a very long time. Such an unusual story seemed worthy of another time out to pursue its authenticity.

Locating the Author

I began by trying to locate the writer who wrote the article to verify his sources but found the Connecticut telephone number listed with the Notre Dame Alumni office had been changed to a number in Cleveland and that number had been disconnected. I suspected the address might also be an old one and decided to try the artist's number in Texas as my next likely source.

Bob Fowler, who illustrated the article, was most surprised to be hearing my inquiries about a story he'd been associated with some 40 years before. He said he remembered it well and said it had been a story that fascinated him, too. He told me he could not speak for the writer, but understood the story to be true and said three people he knew at the time, if they were still living, would be able to verify it: Brother Robert O'Brien, Brother Marcellinus Fahey and Brother Thomas.

Shortly after the story was written, he said he graduated and left for Mexico to execute a commission for a metal sculpture which became his chosen field. Since that time he said he has had about 300 commissions all over the world. I thanked him for his information and he wished me luck in my search, asking to be remembered to the author of the story should I eventually locate him.

Unfortunately, a quick check revealed all three Brothers had since died, so I was left with trying to find another way to reach the writer. Several false leads to Scholastic editors at the time proved fruitless, although they did produce two interesting fond remembrances of the Grotto for my growing collection. Several other leads over several months brought no new clues. I decided to make one last attempt to contact the author before abandoning my search. I sent a letter to the Cleveland Post Office box number listed with the Alumni Office and included my telephone number just in case it did reach him.

I was reading the paper one evening, two days later, when the telephone rang. I was startled to hear a man's voice identify himself as Richard Gerbracht the author of the article. After such a vexing time trying to locate him, he couldn't have known what an answered prayer his telephone call turned out to be.

He had been involved mostly in the advertising field since his graduation and now had his own "turnaround agency" business. He said the arrival of my letter reminded him of his first visit to the campus in seven years several months before, during the last Christmas break. Because a number of the people he had hoped to see were gone, he was strolling the campus by himself reliving old memories. One of those remembrances, he said, was "The Forgotten Crown" story he had written in 1953 during his last year at Notre Dame. When my letter arrived with a copy of the story enclosed, he said, it was a startling coincidence and quite a surprise since 40 years had passed since it was published.

"Yes," he said, "he was convinced the story was true." He told me he had interviewed a number of priests and professors living at the time, and now dead, who all agreed it had actually happened. One, retired Professor Edward Fischer, had died recently. The other, Father Cornelius Laskowski, his main source, he was surprised to learn had died the year after the article was written, in 1954.

From Gerbracht's information obtained from sources now deceased, the crown was sent to the campus laundry for safekeeping after the theft of the other crowns. There it supposedly reposed, hidden away and forgotten. A most unlikely yet reasonable place to conceal it where it would be in the care of the Sisters who ran the laundry. After all, what thief would look for it there?

Those originally involved in its placement may have been reassigned and were no longer accountable. Those who replaced them may have had no knowledge of it or its value and mistakenly considered it a stage prop, an imitation, awarding it no special significance, until as the story relates, it was too late to rescue it. At any rate, at some point in time the crown must have surfaced at the campus laundry.

Excerpts from Richard Gerbracht's "The Forgotten Crown" story:

No one knows who sent it to the laundry or just how long it remained there.

The story goes on:

Since the author of the forgotten crown story had not noted any of his sources, and did not remember them, I had no way to reconstruct the story short of hunting up new sources myself.

Back to Square One

Should I abandon the search, or track it, as I had done with the others while there might be someone still living who could point me in the right direction? Being, I thought, my last remaining mystery associated with Our Lady and the Grotto it seemed worthy of the effort.

A concentrated search of the Scholastic indexes revealed no new clues to follow, nothing evidential on its disappearance, so I decided to delay further study there and come at it from another angle.

The main part of his story was associated with Holy Cross Seminary during the early 1900s, 1915-1925. I decided to start there and work backwards, interviewing any living priests who might have been there at that time. Once again, Father Boehm, my retired priest friend, at Holy Cross House, who had given me directions to find the St. Mary's Grotto in the glen, gave me my first clue that the story was true.

He said though he was there near that time, he entered later and never heard about the crowns. However, years later, in the 1950s, Father Michael Early, chaplain at St. Mary's Convent at the time Father Boehm first came there, happened to refer to it in a dinner conversation one evening. He was Superior of the Seminary from 1926 - 32 when the university requested the crown returned. He said a diligent search was made for it but it was never found.

Father Boehm very kindly got out his priest handbook and gave me the names of half a dozen priests, still living, who would have been at the seminary at that time. Most of them I found the same afternoon. Three were not mentally capable of recalling it. One had heard the story but had not seen the crown.

The fourth, Father Kehoe, smiled knowingly when I mentioned it and said, indeed, he and others used to play with it. Only then, he said it was in pieces and he didn't recall that there were any jewels left in it. He said several years later, as a seminarian, he heard of the search for the Empress Eugenie crown and returned to Holy Cross Seminary to look for it, but he never found it. The last time he saw it, it was hanging on a peg in the steam room (my second clue). Looking back on it now, he said he was convinced it was real because, like gold, in handling it at the time he had noticed how malleable it was. As he related the story to me, his eyes teared in remembrance, saddened by the memory of having played with something that had once been greatly valued by the Empress Eugenie herself.

I had one more priest to go, Father Charles Carey, who had filled me in on other campus stories. Not expecting much more than I'd already uncovered I asked the usual question. Had he heard anything about a missing crown. Without hesitation, he said, he had. Thinking he'd heard about it from someone else, I asked him to tell me what he knew. He said he hadn't heard about it, he'd seen it!

When I asked him to relate his experience with it he told me this story. He was up in the attic of Holy Cross Seminary with several others looking for costumes for a play they were planning. It was there he first saw the crown, only in this case, it was early enough to still have the jewels in it. He said everyone naturally assumed the jewels were glass and never thought anything more about it. On one occasion he recalled them trying to pry the colorful stones from the crown but they were too tightly embedded at the time to yield to their probing. Being teenagers, he said they'd probably have sold them for 15 cents if they could have gotten them out. He said it was his belief, because the stones were so securely set, that the crown was genuine.

My next stop was the Hesburgh Library stacks in search of books with pictures, that might also be dated, of Empress Eugenie wearing a crown. And since the crown reportedly had been used as a stage prop in plays, I looked for pictures of plays where a crown was used in The Dome yearbooks during that period.

A careful search revealed several plays with a crown being used but none of them close enough to identify. The last, and only discernible one I found, was pictured in a 1917 Dome yearbook(103) at just about the time it might still have been in fairly good condition. I recalled the story mentioning: "On one particular Christmas the wearer of the crown had an unusually large head; the crown was split to accommodate the wearer." The actor in the picture appeared to have a large head.

The several books in which I found pictures of Empress Eugenie wearing a crown revealed one picture (there were three different crowns in different photographs) that looked similar to the one pictured on the student in The Dome.

I made enlarged copies of them, and with magnifying glass in hand, took them over to Holy Cross House the next Friday afternoon. I knew Father Carey, who resided at Corby Hall on campus, would be visiting that day to hear confessions. Always genial, Father Carey greeted me with a smile when I told him I had some pictures for him to look at. I explained that I hoped he might be able to tell if the one in the picture, said to have been taken before 1865 (the crown was given to Notre Dame in 1866), looked like the one he remembered. Even before I showed it to him, he said, "Well I do remember it had gemstones the size of marbles, and he reiterated, that there was no doubt in his mind that the story was true. The crown had been described as being "of solid gold, studded with precious stones and inlaid with pearls." I was encouraged, the picture did have what looked liked rubies or emeralds the size of marbles!

A computer enhancement of the photograph from the book,(104) sharpened it, clarified its general shape and the larger stones, but was not sharp enough to reveal the smaller ones in it. I handed it to him and he studied it with the magnifying glass and replied, "Well, I can't be positive after all these years, but it certainly does look like it." The larger stones he felt might have been red and green. About the pearls, he didn't recall, but then, he said, we were all impressed with the stones the size of marbles and probably wouldn't have noticed.

Who was the Countess of Teba?

Grateful for his detailed remembrances, I turned my attention to one mixed up sentence in the 1953 story that had been puzzling me for some time. It read:

"It is thought that the missing crown
the Spanish countess of Teba, before
is the one Eugenie wore when she was
her marriage to Napoleon III."

It seemed to refer to the crown being worn by Eugenie when she was married to Napoleon III. But where did the Spanish Countess of Teba come in? I pressed on perusing the books in which I'd found the pictures of the crown for background on Eugenie. What I found surprised me -- a detailed description(105) of the gown and crown she wore during her civil marriage to Napoleon. It matched exactly those she wore in the picture I showed Father Carey, the one he said looked like the crown he had seen. It is the picture at the head of this chapter. I was making progress.

Finding no mention of the Spanish Countess of Teba in that book, I switched to another and almost immediately found the answer I was looking for, a reference to the Countess of Teba. In the process, I also found interesting information about Eugenie's background that might explain somewhat her gesture of giving her crown to Notre Dame:

So, she herself, was the Countess of Teba!

Her interesting life as a young woman was detailed -- most especially, her dilemma when her sister married the man she was secretly in love with.

As the saying goes, the rest is history. The Spanish Countess became Empress Eugenie of France. I wondered if this little story from her past, and her devotion to her Catholic religion might also explain her later generosity in sending gifts to Sorin and his Catholic University in the new world.

Pleased with my unexpected find, I spontaneously shared my latest progress with Peter Lysy, at the same time, showing him the mixed-up sentence in the story I thought I'd figured out. He saw something, as a sharp-eyed archivist, I'd totally overlooked. While I'd been hunting in books, the explanation had been right before my eyes. He showed me where the lines in the sentence had been switched, something he said was not uncommon in setting type. The lines, once rearranged, were easily explained:

It is thought that the missing crown
is the one Eugenie wore when she was
the Spanish countess of Teba, before
her marriage to Napoleon III.

It was something I'd missed completely. However, had I known its correct meaning before, I probably would not have been moved to read every book I could find on her. In doing so, I found the wedding gown and crown description mentioned earlier which proved the date and occasion of the all important picture of the crown Father Carey had identified -- her civil marriage to Napoleon III.

Now it began to make sense. It would seem unlikely that she would give as a gift to Notre Dame, a French crown that became hers after her marriage. Whereas, a crown of her own would be, as it was noted, a personal gift from her. And if, as Father Carey felt, the crown she wore in her wedding picture was the one he remembered that would also make sense. As the Countess of Teba had she worn her own crown, one last time for her civil marriage in 1853, and later in 1866 passed it on to Notre Dame as her personal gift to adorn the statue of the Blessed Virgin Father Sorin had newly acquired from his trip to Rome? It seemed very likely because the gown and crown she wore for her coronation wedding were entirely different. The gown for her coronation wedding was white. She wore a "rose-colored satin" gown for her civil ceremony.

About this same time Father Carey also confirmed this additional piece of the story, the removal of the statue the Eugenie crown had formerly been placed on.

Gerbracht story relates:

That "Dumpy Statue"

When I asked Father Carey about the Blessed Virgin statue behind the old Moreau Seminary mentioned in the Gerbracht story, he knew about it too. He said he was told that Father Sorin had gone to Rome to see the Pope in the 1860s regarding a certain matter he wished him to approve. Hoping to gain his favor he purchased a statue of the Blessed Virgin done by the Pope's nephew.

The statue when it arrived, was described as "a horribly designed thing," but in deference to the Pope it was placed on a hanging pedestal in the East wing of the church, the Eugenie crown placed upon it. Being in a different spot than the other two crowns, it apparently escaped the robbery in 1886.

Later, I happened upon a description of the church in 1879 confirming the crown was on this particular statue. This was seven years before the robbery in 1886 when the chapels were under construction. The description also included the cost of several items in the church which made it quite a find as I've never before seen evidence of this information. I include a portion of it, for those who might be especially interested in the church.

It describes a visit to South Bend and Notre Dame:

The letter describes a visit to the South Bend standpipe, the recent fire that destroyed the main building and the interior of the church:

The crown was thought to have been removed for safekeeping after the robbery in 1886 making it a perfect time to also dispose of the "horribly designed" statue. It was removed and placed behind the seminary. Every priest I've asked about it remembers it as that "dumpy statue" behind the seminary. One priest in particular had a reason to remember its pedestal. He said he and another seminarian were trying to bury it because it was too heavy to move. He said his leg was caught between the pedestal and a shovel he was using. It was badly injured which delayed his studies considerably and he was not able to graduate with his class.

A Link to Holland?

Here again, I discovered another link to the Gerbracht story. Both Father Carey and Father Schidel recalled a Brother Willibrord Polman who came from Holland and was a baker at the time in the campus bakery which was behind the main building. He also had men working for him from Holland who delivered baked goods to the various buildings on campus. So the letter about the employee from Holland became more and more plausible. Another piece in the puzzle but, unfortunately, one I had no way to check. Any members of Brother Polman's family who might have heard the story are now deceased.

However Brother Willibrord's name lives on for another reason. In researching the Crown story, the mention of his name brought up another campus tale from those who were a part of the University in the early days. Brother Willibrord was also known for the famous Notre Dame Buns. They were so sought after that they became a tradition at Notre Dame in the early days of the campus. I asked my priest friends what was so special about these famous Notre Dame Buns thinking they were some kind of campus joke: "Oh no!" said one, "they were wonderful. There's been nothing like them since. When they were freshly baked everyone fought over them and as they got older they fought with them. Some loved the hard crust and others loved the centers, they would break them open as they aged for any softness left inside."

As the story goes, Brother Willibrord, as his health declined, was asked to write down the recipe for his famous Notre Dame Buns so that the tradition might be carried on. Nobody knows if he preferred to be secretive or whether his time just ran out before he was able to commit it to paper. "Sadly," they said, "there would never again be Notre Dame buns like those. Brother Willibrord took the recipe with him to his grave."

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