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Criminal gang using explosives to blow up church safes across country

  • An organised crime ring has used explosives in heists on four historic churches

  • Sacred silver including chalices, candlesticks and crucifixes were stolen

An organised crime ring which has carried out explosions to steal tens of thousands of pounds of sacred silver is feared to be targeting churches across the country.

The thieves are believed to have hit four churches so far for their historic chalices, candlesticks, crucifixes and plates locked away in safe storage.

One holy heist saw 25 pieces of communion silver, including a 450-year-old Elizabethan chalice worth £30,000, stolen from a locked safe in the vestry of Lady St Mary Church in Wareham, Dorset.

The burglars smashed a lead window to get into the Grade I listed, 10th century building and used angle grinders to break open heavy oak doors.

They then drilled a hole in the door of the 3ft tall safe before placing explosives inside to force the door open.

Damage at the bottom of the window where the gang broke into the Lady St Mary Church in Wareham, Dorset

The bottom of the window (circled) where the gang broke into the Lady St Mary Church, making off with 25 pieces of sacred silver

Similar thefts have taken place in two churches in Suffolk and another one in Lancashire. Police have confirmed they are looking into whether they are linked.

Police and the Church of England have warned other churches to be vigilant.

Canon Simon Everett described the attack on the Lady St Mary Church in Wareham as a 'very professional crime'.

The gang struck overnight on April 14-15 while he was asleep in the Rectory.

They cut the electrics in case the church had CCTV cameras and then broke into every locked door inside the church before finding the safe in a store room.

Their haul included the 7ins tall Elizabethan chalice and a chalice dating to the time of Charles II. Several items belonging to neighbouring churches that were being stored there as they didn't have their own safes were also taken.

There are fears the precious items could now be melted down.

The thieves also used a lubricant, possibly WD40, to prevent their fingerprints being found.

The 450-year-old Elizabethan chalice worth £30,000, which was among 25 pieces stolen from Lady St Mary Church in Wareham

Canon Everett said: "They broke through one of the chancel leaded windows. We have beautiful stained glass windows which were not interfered with fortunately.

"Once inside they could open up the church and they went through trying all the locked doors and forcing them open. In the case of the vestry, they used an angle grinder to break the lock.

"They tried drilling out the locks of the safe, when they didn't have any joy they drilled a hole in the middle of the door and put a small explosive charge below the mechanism.

"I don't know how much of a noise it would have made. It didn't blow the door off its hinges, it just blew the locking mechanism.

"It was very professionally done. There was no trace of DNA or fingerprints or anything. They cut all the electrics in case there were security cameras, they knew exactly what they were doing.

"They interfered with nothing else in the church, they just took all the silver.

"We don't know how they knew. It's a puzzle to all of us - we don't know if they just took a chance that a lot of churches might have silver.

Thieves blasted open the safe (pictured) in the church using explosives

"These pieces were of considerable value and historic, some dated back to Elizabeth I. We haven't had the valuations yet but there were really important pieces in there.

"What is really upsetting is they have desecrated a holy place. A lot of these items were given in memory of loved ones. It's a real violation of a sacred space that's important to the people of Wareham.

"People are shocked and outraged, they just can't believe it. It's so audacious. They got away with so much and there seems to be nothing to go on.

"The really sad part is some of them are really significant pieces and it would be horrendous to think they are just going to be melted down.

"I don't think the value of the silver itself would be that great compared to the historical value. They are irreplaceable."

The church is still waiting on valuations for the stolen items but an expert has indicated the pieces are worth tens of thousands.

The Elizabethan chalice, which is engraved with the church's name, is 7.25in tall and dates to 1574. Similar pieces are available for sale online for up to £27,000.

A 362-year-old silver chalice made in Charles II era would be worth about £8,000.

One of the items which belonged to the Church of St Nicholas at Arne that was taken was an elaborate Victorian chalice which is Medieval style and decorated with garnet stones, which is dated 1868.

Also taken were various silver ciboriums and patens - receptacles for holding communion bread - ranging across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as well as a wine jug and a pyx - small round communion container.

Two similar incidents took place in Suffolk.

Thieves stole a Victorian cross and a lectern from St Mary's Church in Burstall between April 9-11 and St Michael's Church in Woolvestone had a number of brass items stolen on April 18 - five candlesticks, two vases, two small organ candelabra and candlestick cups.

In Lancashire criminals targeted St Mary's Church in Goosnargh on April 10-11.

There they drilled out the locks on two safes and stole cash and multiple silverware items 'of significant value'.

Lancashire Police acknowledged the thefts could be linked. A spokeswoman said:

"We are aware that there have been burglaries at churches in other parts of the country and we are linked in with the forces involved."

She added: "We ask antiques dealers and those attending antiques fairs and auctions to be vigilant with regards to property which might have been stolen in burglaries at churches.

"If they are suspicious that items they see are stolen, please report it to police.

We want to see items returned to their rightful owners."

Police Constable Ryan Dunkerley, of Dorset police, said: "We are conducting enquiries and I am keen to hear from anyone who may have information that could assist our investigation.

"I would also like to speak to anyone who comes across silverware being offered for sale locally or online in suspicious circumstances."


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