WOONSOCKET â€“ Something seemed out of place when the pastor of St. Charles Barromeo parish went out to shovel snow off the church steps Saturday morning, but he couldnâ€™t immediately put his finger on it.
Suddenly, the Rev. Gerald Finnegan realized what it was: some 60 feet of bronze hand rail that had been bolted to the granite staircase were gone. Police say the rails were likely snatched by thieves and sold for scrap.
â€śThis was just shocking,â€ť Finnegan said. â€śYou think theyâ€™re securely fastened but I guess they were held there with just nuts and bolts that were loosened. It makes you sad.â€ť
Bill Fagan, a member of the churchâ€™s building committee, said the hand rails were among the original fixtures of the historic church. Located at 190 North Main St., the majestic, granite-block structure was Woonsocketâ€™s first Roman Catholic church, built in 1868, he said.
Passersby will still notice some railings on the steps, but those are black-painted, steel pipes that were installed about a year ago for an added measure of safety, Fagan said. They have practically no value as scrap metal.
â€śWe went to church Saturday morning and saw what happened,â€ť said Fagan. â€śItâ€™s a travesty. Just unbelievable...those railings were there for over a hundred years.â€ť
A local scrap metals dealer who asked not to be identified said brass is selling for an average of $1.50 a pound â€“ about half the worth of copper, an even more desirable quarry for thieves.
Thefts of copper and brass fixtures have become one of the criminal hallmarks of the Great Recession. Detective Jamie Paone said that in Woonsocket alone, which has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, thieves have stripped copper tubing, heating coils and other fixtures from numerous vacant properties.
Most of the targets are residential structures, but houses of worship donâ€™t have any special dispensation from the crime.
In October 2011, St. James Episcopal Church on Hamlet Avenue reported that a brass crucifix nearly three feet tall was stolen from the altar inside the church. The cross was never recovered, and no one was ever charged with the crime.
In April 2010, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church in nearby Cumberland, reported the theft of six bells worth an estimated $100,000. Police later charged James Haselton of Lincoln with receiving stolen goods.
Haselton pleaded no contest and was given a suspended sentence of 10 years, but he was also ordered to serve five months at the Adult Correctional Institutions as a probation violator.
â€śYouâ€™d think some things are sacred,â€ť said Detective Paone. â€śI guess not.â€ť
The investigation into the theft of the railings from St. Charles is just getting under way, said Paone. Detectives will canvass the neighborhood and look for security cameras in the area that might have captured images of the theft.
Sadly, this isnâ€™t the first time St. Charles has been targeted by metals thieves. Copper gutters were stolen several years ago, according to Rev. Finnegan. More recently, someone broke in through a window and tried to force open a safe.
Finnegan, 75, said he thinks the thieves stole the railings Friday night. Finnegan said he heard nothing unusual from his residence in the rectory, across the street.
â€śThere are two little houses on the side of the church, and the people who live there didnâ€™t hear anything either,â€ť he said. â€śSo whoever took them must have worked very carefully.â€ť