Two elderly sisters -- dressed in identical pleated white skirts -- last night carefully carried a blue velvet pillow on which rested a recently found jeweled crown in a church procession to honor the Virgin Mary.
As Rosalie O'Donnell, 81, and her sister, Doris, 79, proceeded down the aisle, more than 500 people at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson stood to look at the crown.
After almost 30 years, the gold crown encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds was being reunited with a 4 1/2 -foot statue of Our Lady of Fatima, enveloped in a diaphanous, gold-flecked veil.
As the Rev. Casimir M. Peterson -- rescuer of the headpiece from a bank vault -- gently placed the wondrous diadem on the plaster statue's lifelike head, the crowd congregants clapped enthusiastically.
"It was beautiful," said Jeanne M. Jones of Homeland in Baltimore City, who attended the ceremony, "It reminded me of old-fashioned Catholicism."
Added Judith Boutin of Towson, "It was awe-inspiring."
It also was an emotional moment for the O'Donnells, whose mother's gold engagement ring with opals and diamonds is part of the crown, valued at $140,000.
"It's wonderful, a real honor," Doris O'Donnell said.
The two-hour ceremony -- which began with a recitation of the Rosary and ended with a celebration of Mass -- was the culmination of days of activity to return the 10-inch-tall, 1 1/2 -pound crown to the statue by yesterday -- the feast day of the Queenship of Mary.
"It's been harrowing putting this together so quickly," Peterson said. "But the Blessed Virgin Mary is taking care of things."
The coronation also marked another chapter in a decades-old mystery that still is being unraveled. Until two weeks ago, many did not know the crown existed. But a mysterious key led Peterson, executor of an estate, to a safe-deposit box at a Baltimore bank vault where he found the solid-gold crown with 500 precious gems.
"It was like finding King Solomon's mines," recalled Peterson, 75, a retired diocesan priest who is president of the Reparation Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that commissioned the crown.
The intricate, hand-tooled crown was fashioned in the early 1950s from donated jewelry from members of the international ++ organization that was formed in Baltimore 50 years ago to carry on the message of Our Lady of Fatima for peace. But somehow the crown disappeared in the late 1960s.
Its designer also was unknown.
But yesterday, Elizabeth Harris, 84, of Parkville revealed that her father, Thomas Clifford, who died in 1963, likely crafted the piece. He had been employed at the now defunct Schofield on Charles Street, one of Baltimore's prominent silversmiths.
"I'm positive it's his," Harris said. "I'd recognize his roses anywhere."
Other questions about the crown remain. But key members of the Reparation Society are deceased.
The society's founder, the Rev. John J. Ryan, S.J., died four years ago. His successor, Anna Catherine Pertsch, died in May.
The best Peterson can surmise is that the crown was placed at Maryland National Bank, now NationsBank, for safety, possibly because of riots in the city in 1968. Over the years, it somehow was forgotten.
Today, the crown again will be put into storage for safekeeping and the statue will be returned to Pasadena, where the Reparation Society is based.
In his sermon last night, Peterson questioned the importance of the crown. "What does it mean? It means we can't ignore [the Virgin Mary] any more."
Pub Date: 8/23/96