GREEDY thieves who would have sold lead they stripped from a church roof for just a few pounds have caused damage running into tens of thousands of pounds after bringing its steeple crashing down.
A huge crane was expected at St John the Evangelist Church in Birkby today to start making the damaged steeple safe.
The thieves were stripping lead from the church’s roof in the early hours of yesterday morning – the latest in a spate of such thefts from the landmark 155-year-old church.
But disaster struck when they tried to strip the copper lightning conductor from the Grade II-listed building in St John’s Road.
The conductors stretches all the way up the huge steeple and, as they tried to pull it off, it loosened the top of the steeple and tons of masonry came crashing down.
The 150ft steeple is reputed to be the tallest in the Wakefield diocese.
It’s easy to see where each piece landed, punching four holes on an upper roof, with the main bulk crashing through a lower roof leaving a massive gaping hole.
To see more pitcures of the damage click here .
People living opposite the church were woken up by the loud crash at 3.30am and spotted the thieves making a quick getaway.
They were in a small silver car and had to stop on the church’s drive to shift huge stones that had fallen around before speeding off.
Police immediately sealed the church off fearing more parts of the steeple could come down, potentially killing someone.
Firefighters from Huddersfield fire station brought in their aerial ladder platform – but the steeple is so high the platform was well short of the top.
Huddersfield Station Manager Graham Earnshaw – who went up to inspect the damage – said: “It means we’ve been able to have a closer look and also go over the main hole in the roof and look down inside.
“The masonry landed on a side aisle with such force it’s gone straight through the floor below, damaging several pews and two pianos.”
Sue Clarke, Vicar of Christ Church in Woodhouse and priest-in-charge at St John’s, said it was a terrible day for the church congregation.
In recent times the regular worshippers there have been through some tough traumas.
Eight members of the Chisti family died when a gang of killers firebombed a house on Osborne Road next to the church in May, 2002.
In August, 2000, three women walking home on Willow Lane were killed by drink driver Allan Jackson who was later jailed for eight years.
His car ended up hitting the church wall after ploughing into the three victims.
Murdered taxi driver Mohammad Parvaiz who was killed by a gang in Golcar in July, 2006, lived in Birkby with his wife and three children.
Plaques are on the church wall to remember the Chisti family and the three women and Mrs Parvaiz attends fundraising events at the church.
Mrs Clarke said: “The congregation has worked really hard to keep this church going under difficult circumstances and will be so devastated. The two wardens are here every day maintaining such a huge building.
“They are so loyal and have coped with so much disaster. This is a real human tragedy, but sometimes things like this bring communities together. I’ve been told the church will be shut for months rather than weeks.’’
She added: “Everything inside the church is covered in dust and debris – including two pianos. Some of the masonry has crashed right through the floor into the cellar below.’’
She said the church has a core of around 45 worshippers – but things have recently been looking up with more young families attending.
Church treasurer John Thornton said: “Looking at the church roof it seems as though the thieves had stripped lead off before trying to take the lightning conductor. There are two marks on the top parapet where the steeple first hit before crashing down onto the roof.
“The conductor went right to the top of the steeple, but the lower part of it had been stolen previously and replaced.”
It’s thought the thieves had been on the ground next to the church and had possibly tied the lightning conductor to railings to get more leverage when the whole lot came down.
The church had a gold-plated cockerel weather vane on top of the steeple that has been recovered from amid the debris and Mr Thornton is now looking after it.
He said: “A man and his four-year-old daughter came to look at the damage and the little girl was upset the cockerel had gone. I was able to assure her it was in safe hands.’’
Steeplejacks were going to start to make the steeple safe today as several stones remained loose and precarious right at the top. The steeple will then be capped.
The aim was also to put protective sheets over the holes in the roof.
Tim O’Sullivan from Huddersfield CID intelligence unit said: “This just shows what depths thieves will stoop to steal lead. It has caused massive damage to the church and serious upset to the parishioners who will have to cope with their church being closed for a long time to come.
“If anyone has any information at all about who has done this they should contact us immediately.’’
Phone police in Huddersfield on 0845 6060606 or Crimestoppers free and anonymously on 0800 555 111.
The congregation from St John’s are invited to a joint service at Christ Church in Woodhouse this Sunday at 10.30am.