Operators of the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes near Emmitsburg thought they had been blessed with a big donation when a groundskeeper found the two plastic freezer bags filled with gold and silver while raking leaves.
But Shrine Director William Tronolone said the woman approached him after a noon Mass Sunday, six days after the discovery, to ask whether anyone had found some coins she had hidden beneath fallen leaves at the site on the campus of Mount St. Mary's University.
"I said, 'Why did you leave it there?' And she said, 'Well, I had to go away and I was afraid to leave it and I wanted the Blessed Mother to watch over it for me - and evidently she did because you found it,"' Tronolone said.
By then, university officials had had the coins appraised, notified police and placed the money in a safe while awaiting word from investigators.
Tronolone refused to identify the woman. He said she had been out of town about a week.
After the school's security director returned the coins Monday, he accompanied the woman to her bank and persuaded her to put them in her safe deposit box, Tronolone said.
The shrine, about 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, features a replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France, where Catholics believe Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a French schoolgirl named Bernadette several times, beginning in 1858. The Emmitsburg replica draws more than 200,000 visitors annually, Tronolone said.
Grotto visitors often leave anonymous donations, including a $3,000 cash gift two weeks ago.
"Up here at the grotto, you get a lot of people that are very, very faithful," Tronolone said, "and they do things you and I would never even attempt to do."