Cave of Candles
Notre Dame's Grotto / by Dorothy V. Corson

Chapter 5

The Missing Empress Eugenie Crown

Two weeks after the gilding of the dome was completed, on October 6, 1886, the South Bend Tribune reported a "Bold Burglary At Notre Dame." It described the theft of two crowns from the church during the time the chapels were about to be added:

An entrance was effected into the church by prying off some of the boards of the wooden partition back of the altar which was placed there temporarily while the work of extending the church was in progress. . . .

The larger crown was famous all over the country for its intricate workmanship and beauty of design. It was made in France by order of certain donors in this country, for Notre Dame, and was known as 'the Crown of the Blessed Virgin.' It was first exposed to view at the time of the raising of the statue of the Blessed Virgin on the old university building in May, 1866. At the time thousands of people formed in line and passed by the glass case in which the crown reposed, to look at it. Rich in wrought gold and silver and resplendent with jewels it was a work of art, once seen, never to be forgotten. Its exact cost was never known, but it reached several thousand dollars. The duty alone was $943 in gold, equal then to nearly $2500 in greenbacks. This crown rested under the dome of the old university building, in a glass case, in a room especially fitted for it, until the church of the Sacred Heart was built, when it was taken there and thus escaped the fire, which in 1879 caught near the dome and destroyed the old university. In the church of the Sacred Heart this crown was suspended at one side of the grand altar, over the image of the Blessed Virgin, where it was seen and admired by thousands of people from all parts of the world, and where it hung until stolen last night by miscreants, whose impious hands destroyed its beauty forever.

The other crown was a small one made in this country and it originally cost $100.(97)

Father Joseph Carrier, who brought the large crown from France, described it in detail in an 1866 Ave Maria .

Five workmen were constantly employed during three months in making the crown, and twelve for two weeks. The large crown weighs 52 pounds and contains twenty-three and a half pounds of pure silver, and one and three fourths pounds of gold. It measures twenty inches in diameter at the base, two feet four inches in the middle, and and is two feet six inches high.

The sixteen medallions at the base representing the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, and the cipher of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are beautifully enameled (scenes), and cost one hundred francs each [the names of the thirty "generous and noblehearted persons," who each paid $100, are engraved on the casings of the medallions].(98)

By a quirk of fate, after the robbery, two off duty policemen saw two suspicious men about to board a train out of town. When they arrested them, the crowns squashed beneath their jackets, fell to the ground completely shattered.

Although considered irreparable, the crown was eventually restored by a Chicago silversmith and reposes to this day in the Sacristy Museum at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. 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 and the Eugenie Crown were among many gifts brought back from France by Father Joseph Carrier in 1866. The Empress Eugenie crown was described as being made "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) It is believed it escaped being stolen because it was on a statue on a hanging pedestal in another part of the church.

Napoleon and Eugenie had given many valuable gifts to Notre Dame over a period of years (among them the solid silver ostensorium lost in the fire). 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.

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