In the solitude of a Baltimore bank vault two weeks ago, the Rev. Casimir M. Peterson discovered a mysterious wooden container tucked inside a safe-deposit box.
Opening it, he found a magnificent crown -- a solid-gold diadem, studded with hundreds of diamonds, emeralds and rubies -- that had disappeared from atop a statue of the Virgin Mary more than 25 years ago.
"My jaw dropped. I was stunned," recalls Peterson, president of the Reparation Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. "I thought, 'Mary wants her crown back.' "
Tonight, she'll get it back. In a ceremony for the feast day of the Queenship of Mary, the lost crown, valued at $140,000, will be returned to the original 4 1/2 -foot statue of Our Lady of Fatima, marking a turning point in the decades-old mystery.
But not the end of the mystery. Questions remain about why the 10-inch, 1 1/2 -pound crown -- crafted from the precious stones and melted gold of donors' jewelry -- was hidden for so many years. And why no one noticed, until Peterson, 75, a retired diocesan priest, made the chance discovery as executor of an estate.
Even as he prepares for tonight's ceremony at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson, he is trying to piece together the story behind the crown's disappearance in the 1960s and its recent re-emergence.
Over the past several days, Peterson has played detective -- analyzing boxes of documents belonging to the Reparation Society, an international organization that was formed in Baltimore in the 1940s. Its purpose is to propagate the Virgin Mary's message in 1917 to three Portuguese children at Fatima to pray for peace and reparation.
Those who knew key details about the crown are deceased.
The Rev. John J. Ryan, S.J., founder of the organization, died in 1992. His assistant of 40 years and recent society president, Anna Catherine Pertsch, died in May.
But a key with a Maryland National Bank tag, found among Pertsch's effects, opened the door to the crown saga.
Peterson, executor of Pertsch's estate, discovered the key in a rumpled brown envelope. After tracking down the correct branch of the bank -- now NationsBank -- and paying a $155 rental charge, he lugged the crown away in a plastic grocery bag.
If he had waited, the crown's fate could have turned out differently. Bank workers were preparing to drill open the box within days because of the unpaid rental charge, Peterson says.
The hand-tooled crown apparently was fashioned in the early LTC from donations -- including rings, earrings and brooches -- from Reparation Society members after a worldwide appeal for offerings in the Fatima Times newsletter. The artist is unknown.
"It is most unique," says gemologist June Sensinger, who appraised the crown at Portebello Sq. in Towson. "It's remarkable that gifts were given, things of such fine quality."
Sensinger describes the headpiece -- which has 421 diamonds and 85 other gems, including sapphires, emeralds and rubies -- as a reliquary crown with arches that come together and are topped with a symbolic ornament, in this case, a modified Maltese cross. Atop the cross are three tiny bird forms from the early 1800s with rose-cut diamonds and ruby eyes.
Genevieve Theresa Smith, 81, of Curtis Bay vividly remembers the crown. "It was a beautiful thing."
Smith and a friend would take a bus on the first Saturday of each month in the 1950s for a devotion at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore -- the statue and crown's first home.
"Father Ryan would get on a stepladder and place the crown on the head of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima," Smith said. "Then we would sing a beautiful hymn to the blessed virgin."
In the 1960s, the Reparation Society moved to 20th Street. Peterson thinks it was at that time that Pertsch put the crown in the safe-deposit box, possibly because of riots in the city in 1968.
"Somehow it dropped out of sight," he says.
In 1993, the society relocated to Pertsch's home in Pasadena. Many items and papers then were put into storage -- until Peterson's rummagings turned up the key.
Smith always wondered what happened to the crown. "My eyes lit up when I heard they found it," she says.
Because of health problems, she cannot attend tonight's 7 o'clock Mass.
But the public ceremony will provide a reunion of sorts for Rosalie O'Donnell, 81, and her sister, Doris O'Donnell, 79, who donated their mother's gold engagement ring with opals and diamonds to the making of the crown.
The women, who live near Argonne Drive in Northeast Baltimore, will participate in a procession with the elaborate crown.
"I was so amazed how big it was," Rosalie O'Donnell says, "I call it a golden beauty."
After the church service, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima will be returned to Pasadena, where the Reparation Society is based. The crown will be put in storage, although it will be displayed on special occasions.
Peterson doesn't think the discovery of the crown, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius XII's crowning of a statue of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, is a fluke.
Pub Date: 8/22/96