What kind of crook steals stained-glass windows from churches? Pastors and police in Columbus, Ohio, are asking just that given the peculiar nature of recent crimes that left more valuable items untouched.
The first theft occurred in late March. Burglars broke into the pastor’s office and neatly disassembled one of the windows in the room. They were out as quickly as they were in: “Took it out whole, didn’t leave any broken wood behind or anything,” says church administrator Dave Harkless.
Afterwards, the Gates Fourth United Methodist Church in Columbus installed motion sensors in all the offices. They figured that if they were going to be hit again, it would be inside the office where most of the 100-year-old church’s remaining stained-glass windows line the outer walls of those offices.
Fourth Methodist was one of at least two Columbus churches to have been hit by thefts of stained-glass window in the past three months. In both instances, the windows lifted are a century old, and there have been no leads so far for their recovery.
When the staff of Fourth Methodist came in on April 29, a trail of wood splinters evidenced another theft. The intruders also dipped into the kitchen, stealing eggs and sausage meant for feeding the hungry.
The windows were from the original church, built in 1896, Harkless said.
Somehow, thieves knew to hit the nursery—home to just one stained-glass window, and not one of the rooms secured after the initial loss.
A few weeks later, someone propped up a church ladder to steal an ornate stained-glass window from Old First Presbyterian, another century-old church a 10-minute drive away.
“Someone had placed a big stepladder there... and the larger one was gone,” elder Margaret Ann Samuels told The Daily Beast. “Just an empty hole there.” They lifted two other windows, which weren’t installed at that time—but here, too, there was no sign of a break-in.
They reported it to police, but when they returned on Monday, the back door was unlocked. “Then there were two more taken,” Samuels says.
This isn’t Old First Presbyterian’s first brush with window theft. In the 1980s, it had been closed for repairs, and Samuels says maybe a dozen windows disappeared then. But the congregation’s dwindling membership didn’t anticipate such attacks now. They were probably stolen, she says, because of their value.
“Well, they’re probably worth a lot!” Samuels says. “I mean, if you were going to have someone build them now... they don’t make those anymore.”
The church doesn’t “keep expensive things around,” she says. The most valuable items in the building might be their communion items—pottery, aluminum, and a small silver goblet—which weren’t touched.
Motives for the theft are unclear: Windows are not the easiest items to pawn, and doing so in the city where they were stolen is a dangerous enterprise. Those looking to make a quick buck would have to unload them for whatever they get, although more organized operations—those willing to take them out of state—could score a solid sum.
But at Fourth Methodist, Harkless heard rumors that these priceless windows went cheap: $20 a pop. Experts say they’ve probably changed hands many times by now.
That’s a fraction of the $2,600 quote the church got from Franklin Art Glass Studios, a local company, to replace just one of the windows.
“I’m assuming it was easy for them to sell these, especially since it’s happening to more churches,” Harkless says, adding that they probably got it wrong: The office equipment inside was likely worth way more.
The church put up a flier two weeks ago. They’ve had no responses. Harkless says police promised to send a burglary unit to interview church members, but they haven’t been seen in the two months since the first theft.
Columbus police did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Franklin County Municipal Court Clerk’s office said it was was unable to provide The Daily Beast with information on people arrested for stained-glass window thefts.
While Franklin Art Glass owner Gary Helf told The Daily Beast that “a used religious window, with any kind of religious symbol, is not the easiest thing to sell,” the windows stolen from these churches are purely decorative.
They’re the kind people like to hang in their homes as art, said Tom Kennaugh, who helps run German Village Antiques in Columbus. Kennaugh said police have asked him to be on the lookout for the stolen windows.
“They’re very desirable,” he says, but he stays away from selling that type of stuff because it’s more likely than not that they’ve been stolen.
Such windows vary in price. After The Daily Beast showed him images of the windows lifted from Fourth Methodist, Kennaugh said, “If those were retailed out, they would go for about a grand.”
Not that there’s much chance of finding them.
“There’s a guy I know who doesn’t put them out on the floor, but if someone asks he’ll say, ‘Well, I have some in the shed,’” Kennaugh explained. The windows stolen from the churches aren’t likely to pop up locally, either. Rather, they’ve probably already made their way to Dayton or Toledo, or across state lines.
While churches may have been the most high-profile targets of the recent thefts, they were by no means the only ones. Columbus police records show that at least one other stained-glass window theft was reported in May—from a private residence on the same street as Old First Presbyterian.
“But once it’s in private hands, the church will never know,” Kennaugh adds sadly.
The churches, though, just want their windows back. They’ll try to be more alert, but insist on remaining open to all. Much more security just doesn’t feel right.
“It seems strange to me,” Harkless says. “But I guess in this day and age it seems strange to a lot of people that we don’t have security.”