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Church burglaries violate 'sacred space'

Four nighttime burglaries at a Freeland church have left a congregation feeling violated and has taken a special gift away from the church's former pastor.

Break-ins discovered last Thursday morning and on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of this week did not cause a lot of damage at St. Augustine's-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, but they do have church leaders wondering what to do to protect their place of worship.

Stolen in the burglaries were most of a case of communion wine and a stoneware communion plate and chalice the congregation intended to give to former pastor Bill Burnett. Liz Kershaw, a member of the church's altar committee, said Monday she is upset with the repeated break ins.

"It's so violating," she said while looking over minor damage done to cupboards near and behind the church's altar.

Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton, St. Augustine's pastor, said Monday that the first three break-ins occurred when burglars found a door lacking a bottom bolt in its latch system. He said they "walked" the door open and apparently started looking around the church.

On Thursday, parishioners setting up for a potluck noticed that a bag of pretzels and a bottle of wine were missing from the church. Also gone was a fire extinguisher.

Taber-Hamilton said the incident was all but forgotten until Sunday morning, when those arriving to prepare for services found five more bottles of wine gone, along with a bag containing the gift chalice and plate. The burglars forced open several cabinets while searching the church and, strangely, left behind a bag containing several cans of beer.

Taber said he suspects whoever was in the church was interrupted and left the beer behind.

Monday, the church's secretary, Rachel McDougald, found evidence that the burglars had returned: She discovered a feather duster and a box of tissues out of place in the church's sanctuary. And on Tuesday, despite a stout chain placed on the vulnerable door, the burglars returned yet again, but took nothing.

Taber-Hamilton said the church has not lost much that cannot be replaced, other than the gifts for Burnett. He said he was most unhappy to know someone could be so disrespectful as to break into a church repeatedly.

"It's a violation of sacred space," he said.

Not taken in the burglaries were such valuable items such as brass candlestick holders. The burglaries are under investigation by the Island County Sheriff's Office. Taber-Hamilton said law enforcement has told him it is most likely youths breaking into the church. He said he believes that to be the case.

Church secretary McDougald said the church began taking steps Tuesday to make the church sanctuary secure against break-ins. That accomplished, Taber-Hamilton said, he hopes someone will come forward with the chalice and plate, which were given by church members as a gift to their former pastor. Liz Kershaw said she had planned to give the items to Burnett last Sunday during worship services.

Taber-Hamilton said the church will take the items back, no questions asked, if found. They are made of gray stoneware and are adorned with gold leaf. Anyone with information about the crimes is encouraged to call the Island County Sheriff's Office.

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