The Queen, The Crowns, The Mob

Brooklyn while not always unwavering in its sanctity is impressively rich in its churches. In addition to being called the “City of Trees” and “City of Homes,” it’s also been called the “City of Churches;” lately, it’s more inclusively referred to as the Borough of Homes and Churches.” Most of these churches are Roman Catholic, built in the spiritual image of mostly first- and second-generation Italian-Americans, and have always maintained a prominent position among the faithful; indeed, parishioners would often identify themselves more with their respective parishes than with their respective neighborhoods.

A very comprehensive and very majestic example of a Brooklyn church is Regina Pacis (“Queen of Peace”) located at the corner of 12th Avenue and 65th Street in Borough Park. The church is an architectural masterpiece reflective of Italian Renaissance design…a European shrine rather than a neighborhood church; the unlikely catalyst for what was almost certainly a mob hit.

While World War II was raging overseas, parishioners of the small and rather creaky St. Rosalia’s Church pledged that if the war came to an end they would erect “a lasting memorial to the ideal of peace.” Work began on one of Brooklyn’s greatest churches in 1948 with a price tag of $1,000,000 (by the time of completion, it rose to $2,000,000) and Regina Pacis Votive Shrine was dedicated in 1951.

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. To preserve the artwork, reducing soot and dirt, the church was among the first to use electric candles; the originals are still in place today.

As a testament to the communal involvement of parishioners, Regina Pacis’ construction was financed, to a large degree, by contributions. Even though they were poor Italian immigrants, parish members donated whatever they had to build the church: wedding and engagement rings, other kinds of jewelry, small and large sums of money…whatever they had to give, they gave.

Father Cioffi

Some of the jewels collected were converted into the crowns that topped the heads of the Virgin Mother and Child. In 1952, less than a year after Regina Pacis’ dedication, the crowns (with an estimated worth of $100,000) were stolen. The crime not only shocked the parish but became a national story. While some people started collections, others wrote editorials in newspapers condemning the criminal(s); the children of St. Rosalia, the parish school, prayed each morning for their return.
Eight days later the church pastor, Father Cioffi, received a mysterious package…inside were the crowns almost perfectly intact. The pastor burst upon the next morning’s mass and announced the good news to a jubilant congregation. “Parishioners were overwhelmed:  some applauded, some prayed, some cried, and three fainted.”

Meanwhile, police were still searching for the thieves without any success. The outrage over the theft, unappeased by the safe return of the crowns, was driving the public wild. Indeed, the Brooklyn Eagle downplayed the recovery of the crowns; its headline read: “Shrine Gem Thieves Hunted.” The police had only one suspect by the name of Ralph Emminio, a 38-year-old jewel thief. Strangely coinciding with the return of the crowns was the discovery of Emmino’s body on a street in Bath Beach (Brooklyn); he had been shot to death.

Vincent Emmino, 18-year-old brother of Ralph ‘Buck’ Emmino, is restrained by police after identifying his brother’s body.

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.

I grew up in Bensonhurst, which borders Regina Pacis’ parish in Borough Park; my parish being the less awe-inspiring Our Lady of Guadalupe, which borders it spiritually. Among the residents of that modestly intriguing neighborhood, traditional knowledge usually took hold where fact would end; that the Mafia had strong ties to Regina Pacis (as it did to Saint Rosalia, the church’s launch pad) was an accepted issue borne of traditional knowledge.

The Mafia never leaves one of its hits lying on a public street to be easily found; instead, it drives them to a New Jersey swamp to be found months or years later…except when it wants to make a statement.  Emmino’s body had been found on a Brooklyn street (photo/blog) on Bay 41st Street between Bath and Benson Avenues in Bath Beach), shot twice through the chest and once through the head (“execution style”); he was clearly left on display.

That the police had already suspected him for stealing the crowns, that his murder coincided with their return, tainted the magnificent holiness of Regina Pacis with an aura of criminality. The “Queen of Peace” may have had her crowns safely returned but they were forever tarnished by rumor and conjecture.

Brooklynology

A splendid Regina Pacis photo gallery can be found here at Bald Punk

(originally posted: o2/04/10)

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