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Regina Pacis and the Case of the Missing Crowns

Aug 5, 2009 3:37 PM | 14 comments

Regina Pacis Votive Shrine

In the midst of World War II, the parishioners of St. Rosalia's Church in Borough Park made a pledge:  if the war came to an end, they would construct "a lasting memorial to the ideal of peace."  By 1948 ground was broken for one the greatest churches in Brooklyn, a $1,000,000 devotion to the Queen of Peace - Regina Pacis.

Regina Pacis Votive Shrine, at 65th Street and 12th Avenue, was (and still is) a model of Italian Renaissance design. It was a two-story building with 1,500 seats on the main floor and 1,200 more in the basement chapel.  It was the second Catholic church in the country to have air conditioning (at a cost of $70,000).  The 150-foot steeple was topped with four spotlights that illuminated an engraved bronze cross announcing "Pax", or peace.  Two thousand tons of Italian marble were used in the building; sixteen stained glass windows told the story of the Virgin Mother, and fifteen Italian mosaics represented the Stations of the Cross. 

Dedication Ceremony

The development of the building was regularly reported in the paper, and its opening was greatly anticipated.  Archbishop Thomas Molloy presided over the dedication mass in August 1951.  7,000 of the 12,000 parishioners came that day.  By the end, the price tag had risen to over $2,000,000, much of it supplied by the parishioners.  But there was still one more feature to complete. 

Painting with Hooks for the Crowns

A large painting of the Virgin Mother and Child hung behind the altar, and hooks were installed for a special crown for Mary.  Instead of money, parishioners were to donate jewelry.  Many responded by giving family heirlooms and wedding bands, a thank you gift for the safe return of their loved ones from war.  So many gems were donated that two 18-carat gold crowns were produced, one for Mary and one for the baby Jesus.  They were estimated to be worth $100,000 and included 600 diamonds, rubies and sapphires.  In January 1952, the pastor, Father Cioffi, flew Crowns of Regina Pacis and Baby Jesusto Rome to have them blessed by Pope Pius XII in a private ceremony.  A coronation was held at Regina Pacis in May, making the shrine of peace complete. 

One week later, during a wedding, Father James Russo noticed something strange.  A six-inch hole had been cut into the gate that protected the altar painting.  And the security system was off.  Someone had stolen the crowns.

Replace the Crowns!The people of Regina Pacis were horrified.  The crime made the front page of the Eagle, and Time magazine reported the theft, making it a national story.  Parishioners started a collection to replace the crowns.  Brooklynites wrote editorials in the paper calling the thieves immoral.  The children of St. Rosalia's school prayed each morning for the return of the crowns.  A symbol of peace in post-war America had been taken away, and no evidence had been left behind. 

And then, after eight days, a mysterious package arrived at the rectory.  Inside were the crowns, almost perfectly intact!  Father Cioffi burst into the 10 a.m. mass the next day and announced their miraculous return.  Parishioners were overwhelmed:  some applauded, some prayed, some cried, and three fainted.

Faith is Rewarded

But who had taken them?  And who had returned them?  Had the thief felt the pangs of guilt?  Or did someone else find them and return them?  The Eagle announced the return of the crowns on the front page of the newspaper with three large photographs.  But instead of the headline announcing the return of the crowns, it read:  "SHRINE GEM THIEVES HUNTED."  The people wanted answers.

Only one lead was ever reported in the paper.  During the eight days, Ralph Emmino a 22 year-old jewel thief with suspected mafia ties was found shot to death on the side of the road in Bath Beach.  Many suspected that Emmino had either taken more than his fair share in a group crown heist or had been punished for stealing from a church -- an off-limits zone for mob business.  Other leads developed from there: one man reported seeing Emmino's car in the parking lot the night of the crime, and another claimed that two mysterious men asked him to deliver "a package" to Regina Pacis the day before the crowns appeared in the mail.  The Eagle reported that Catholic churches in Brooklyn refused to give Emmino, a suspect in the public's eyes, a Catholic burial.  But no actual evidence was ever found beyond the package itself.  The case remains unsolved.

As for the crowns, a second coronation was held in July.  A new security system and a night watchman were also installed.  Father Cioffi asked everyone to give thanks for the return of the crowns and to remember that forgiveness was important.  And with that, the people of Regina Pacis moved on... finally at peace.An Emotional Return

Woman kisses the Returned Crowns


8/6/2009 5:53:11 PM #

Great story!


8/11/2009 6:06:33 PM #

Wow that is so interesting.


12/6/2010 4:46:20 PM #

I went to grammar school there from 1956 to 1964 and I believe the diamonds were stolen a second time.  My family was very close to Msgr. Cioffi.  The word was out on the street to return them.

bert miglino

6/14/2011 12:03:03 PM #

I attended St Rosalia's School from 1942 to 1950. Regina Pacis was built next to our school. I was an alter boy and served mass at the Mother Church on 62nd St and 14th  Ave.

On many occasions, I remember Msgr Cioffi stopping the mass and making a second collection for Regina Pacis. I recall him pointing to mothers of soldiers fighting in WW II and saying to them.."don't you want your son to come home alive?...give to the shrine of the Queen of Peace...take off your ring and put it in the basket". Many did and were used on the crowns.

I also remember when the crowns were stolen. Someone went into the church and removed them from picture. The mafia don, Joe Profaci had three sons attending St Rosalia School; Salvatore. who was in my class and went to St John's Prep with me, John and Joseph. He issued an ultimatum to the thief..."return the crowns...or else" The crowns were returned to the church my mail...ASAP.

The area where the church was built was our playground during recess. We would watch the church being built. The church at the time was a missionary church from the Vatican. All of the priest were Italian.

Eugene Presta

9/6/2011 2:32:59 AM #

I went to Regina from 1960-1968 and remember Father Cioffi. I remember hearing this story when I went to the school Smile

Brooklyn Guy

2/6/2012 10:53:56 AM #

Monsignor Raphelle Cioffi was my great uncle, brother to my Grand mother Virginia (Cioffi) Prisco, mother to my Father, Vincent D. Prisco. I was named after Monsignor, (Ralph).
Monsignor Cioffi was the finest man to this earth. Those of you that knew him would be in full agreement. He also developed the first youth center that is adjacent to the church. He always would enjoy telling how and where the marble came from to build the church. We would visit him in Wading River, LI where he retired and lived with his sister, Florence. Florence (my great Aunt) was the organist for the church. I have many stories to share. We will continue to miss him.  Love Ralph...  

Ralph Prisco

3/25/2012 3:01:46 AM #

Used to play records Fri.nite at confertetnity  with josephine papa.

patricia dallassandro

4/8/2012 9:36:53 PM #

Ralph, my great grandmother was Monsignor Cioffi's first cousin and they were close. Regina Pacis is dear to me as well. We must be related!

Cioffi's First Cousin 3x removed

5/16/2012 7:58:31 PM #

I grew up attending the small Santa Rosalia mother church of Regina Pacis. When the big church was built the magnificent ceiling had a mural of god and the saints. Father Cioffi was included in the painting which resulted in many jokes. If I remember correctly, when the jewels were stolen Father Cioffi pleaded for the parishioners to donate more jewels.
Armando Favazza

armando favazza

11/30/2012 11:04:38 PM #

At the time of the theft, my father, a photographer for the NY Daily News, was assigned to the Park Slope Daily News office on Sterling Place.  I believe he covered the story. (I was eight years old.)  My mother has a brooch that's a replica of one of the crowns.  It's costume jewelry.  What I'm wondering is why does she have such a thing?  Did they sell them at the time?  Was it some kind of reward to my father for his coverage?  I hope there's someone out there who can answer these questions!

V. Crispell

2/4/2013 5:17:49 PM #

I attended a funeral mass today at Regina Pacis for my great aunt, Margaret Fedele, where I was lucky enough to hear the telling of this story by my grandfather, John Vigilante, a retired New York City cop (full of a great many equally colorful and entertaining stories). This neighborhood is so wonderful and rich in life and history, and as more of the original denizens pass on, it makes me very happy to know that some of these stories are at least written down and preserved for posterity.

Isabella Vigilante

3/4/2013 9:37:18 AM #

Yes my friends Those were the days

Tom Mennella

3/4/2013 9:37:31 AM #

Yes my friends Those were the days

Tom Mennella

4/20/2013 4:56:11 PM #

they were days like all days filled with the events that altered and illumunated our times and i was there

richard bove