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Church urged to be vigilant after Easter thefts

21 April 2023

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The interior of St Mary’s, Goosnargh

The interior of St Mary’s, Goosnargh

CHURCHES have been warned to be vigilant for thieves who are targeting metal items, after break-ins in Suffolk and Lancashire.

St Mary’s, Goosnargh, near Preston, was burgled on Easter Monday or Tuesday. The thieves damaged a 200-year-old stained-glass window in their attempts to get entry, and drilled out the locks on two safes, making off with cash and plate.

The Team Rector, the Revd Gregor Stewart, said on Tuesday this week that people in the area felt a “deep sense of hurt”.

The church, which dates from medieval times, was an important place not just for churchgoers, he said, but for the whole community, and local people saw the crime as a “violation of a special and sacred place in the community”.

Items taken from the safe included some that had been given several hundred years before as memorials. “It’s not just a nice cup, or a nice plate, but a part of the heritage — not just of the church, but of the community,” he said. “Even through the hurt and loss, we are reminded of the love and forgiveness that Christ taught us to extend to those who cause that hurt. That is an important part of the story that is happening on the ground here.”

Also in Easter Week, St Mary’s, Burstall, in Suffolk, had a large brass cross and an altar-top lectern stolen from the locked vestry.

Gillian Jasper, a churchwarden at St Mary’s, said on Wednesday that the community’s initial response to the burglary was to be angry and upset, but it had done nothing to dissuade them from keeping the church open through the day. “The church needs to be accessible to people in times of need,” Ms Jasper said.

St John’s, Silverdale, in the diocese of Blackburn, was also targeted in the same period, and the diocese released a statement advising churches in rural areas to be “extra vigilant”.

In a letter sent to all parishes, the diocesan office advises: “If you see anything or anyone suspicious at your churches, do not engage the people involved but rather call the police immediately. When you call the police make sure you say it is ‘a heritage crime’.”

The church operations director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Helen Richards, said on Tuesday: “It’s absolutely appalling that thieves would target churches. In recent months, we’ve seen theft of lead from roofs, silver crosses, brass lecterns, and bronze statues, taken by unscrupulous thieves.

“The impact on the church congregation, as well as the loss of history when these items are stolen, can’t be overstated. If anyone has any information about any of the incidents, then please contact the police in your area.

“There are steps churches can take to help protect themselves, including storing valuables in a high-quality modern suitable safe in a secure area of the church, or storing items off-site where suitable alternative security arrangements can be made and with the approval of church insurers.”

Amid the spate of thefts, there was some good news: part of a haul of silver items stolen from St John’s, Keswick, in the Lake District, in February, was unearthed by a dog sniffing around the graveyard.

The Vicar, the Revd Charles Hope, said that the discovery, on Easter Eve, was like an “Easter miracle”. In a post on the church’s Facebook page, he thanked “our vigilant neighbour and inquisitive dog”.

Mr Hope told BBC News that about one quarter of the items had been recovered, and that it was not clear whether the items had been left in the graveyard immediately after the robbery, or if they had been returned.

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