The Great Crown Caper
Two crowns, one crime, one unsolved mystery
For years, it’s been the subject of fascination and inquiry for visitors to the Main Building (Golden Dome): a large crown, much too large for a human head, in a display case by the elevators. A plaque inside the case tells some of the story, but there’s much more to know about this University treasure...and another tiara that remains at the center of campus intrigue.
Notre Dame’s French founder loved being an American.
Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., literally kissed the ground when he arrived from France. When the first University commencement exercises were held on July 4, 1845, Father Sorin invited the South Bend community onto campus for festivities that included a reading of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic songs and a play. It became a local tradition to celebrate Independence Day at Notre Dame.
The Great Crown Caper
Father Sorin named Washington Hall after the American founding father he most admired. When the Civil War broke out, he dispatched seven priests from his fledgling University —more than he could reasonably spare — to serve as chaplains in the Union army. Suffice to say, Father Sorin’s embrace of the United States was full and unquestioned.
Yet Father Sorin’s French roots ran deep, if only by necessity. He took 42 transatlantic trips after founding Notre Dame, often to France to raise money and awareness for the University. The University’s connections to France remained strong and steadfast in those early decades, and in turn, the notoriety in that country of a small Catholic school in the American west began to rise, even in the highest levels of French society. Father Sorin was close friends with French emperor Napoleon III.
This was the context in which Rev. Joseph Carrier, C.S.C., was dispatched on a mission to France in 1866. Father Carrier, French-born and not long removed from his deployment as chaplain with the army of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was a pioneer in science education at Notre Dame. His objective on this trip was to acquire specimens for the University museum, as well as lab equipment. He was apparently quite successful, procuring more than 50 boxes of supplies and a large telescope, a gift of the emperor. Father Carrier even secured an audience with Napoleon III, whose support for Notre Dame was rooted not just in his personal relationship with Father Sorin, but also in a desire to establish an outpost of French culture in the American frontier.
Father Carrier picked up two other items of particular importance on this trip: two crowns, each remarkable in their own way. One was a stunning crown gifted by the empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife, worn on the occasion of their wedding. According to the Notre Dame Scholastic, Eugenie’s crown was “a crown of solid gold, studded with precious stones and inlaid with pearls.”
The other crown was a magnificent work of art, designed by Father Carrier and commissioned by the University with the help of 30 benefactors: a crown 20 inches in diameter at the base, two-and-a-half feet in the middle, and two-and-a-half feet tall.
According to Scholastic, “not a particle of inferior metal” was used in its creation. It was made out of 23 pounds of pure silver and nearly two pounds of gold. Hundreds of precious stones lined the arches, monde and cross at its top. Around the band, the crown featured images of the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, stamped with the names and cities of residence of the benefactors who donated to make the piece possible. In total, the piece weighed 52 pounds.
The crown was fashioned by “one of the best and most promising young silversmiths of France,” according to Scholastic. The purchase price was $3,500 ($101,650 today), though Scholastic notes that the artistic value of the crown was likely much higher. It took five workers three months to build.
It was meant to occupy space at the literal top of the University. The crown was designed to sit atop a statue of the Virgin Mary that adorned the Dome above the University’s brand-new Main Building. Given its beauty and planned place of prominence, the crown was something of a singular campus icon, a source of pride in the University and in the faith. It was a visual signifier that Notre Dame was well on its way to actualizing the lofty ambitions Father Sorin articulated at its founding.
Father Carrier returned from France in time for the University’s consecration during the Feast of Corpus Christi on May 31, 1866. A large celebration took place that day, with more than 5,000 people from all over the country coming to campus. The New York Herald issued glowing coverage of the event, declaring, "the ceremony will eclipse everything of the kind which has ever taken place in the United States." The statue of the Virgin was dedicated that day as well, though the Rosary Crown was not installed then. Instead, the crown was placed on display inside, under the Dome, awaiting one more voyage across the Atlantic. As it was, thousands filed past to behold its beauty.
In August, Father Sorin took the crown to Rome. He planned to have Pope Pius IX bless it during an audience with the Holy Father, though that was not the main purpose of the meeting. Father Sorin sought the pope’s approval on another matter, and perhaps in a move meant to garner favor, he purchased a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary sculpted by the pope’s nephew. Father Sorin returned to campus the next month, having secured the blessing, the approval and the statue.
Here, an important decision was made. University officials thought better of placing the Rosary Crown atop the statue on the Dome, thereby exposing it to the elements. They decided to place the crown in the Sacred Heart Church instead, suspending it over a similarly sized statue of the Blessed Virgin inside. Empress Eugenie’s crown would be situated similarly. It was placed on the head of the statue of Mary that Father Sorin purchased in Rome, which was displayed in a separate part of the church.
It proved to be a fateful choice. In April 1879, the Main Building and several buildings around it were burned to the ground — but the Sacred Heart Church was relatively unscathed.
The crowns were apparently largely undisturbed in the church for years, even amid seeming constant renovation of the building. In the fall of 1886, the Lady Chapel was being added on the north side of the church. In this state of transition, the building was relatively insecure.
It was an opportunity a small group of criminals exploited.