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Christmas theft shocks church in Pendleton; Up to $25,000 stolen in a brazen burglary

Not even Dickens could have imagined an act so Scroogey.

A brazen thief or thieves stole as much as $25,000 in cash and checks Christmas Day from a church here, jolting a congregation that had been reveling in the holiday spirit of peace and good will.

The money, collected from four Christmas weekend services at Pendleton Center United Methodist Church, largely was earmarked for charitable missions. An estimated 1,300 people attended the four services, and most of them gave Christmas offerings.

"I'm basically in shock, and there's a sense of betrayal and disappointment," said the Rev. Thomas M. Kraft, pastor. "Our congregation is quite in shock."

The theft was reported Monday to the Niagara County Sheriff's Office, which dusted for fingerprints in the church and is investigating.

"It's a mystery to us why people would steal from us when we would probably give them the money if they asked," Kraft said. "Most people, when they ask for help, we try to help them."

Two interior doors were smashed in and broken, and another inside door was unlocked with a key or otherwise bypassed, according to Kraft.

"There was definitely forced entry as a part of it," he said. "They broke through two interior doors and bypassed one locking system. They knew right what they were looking for."

Church leaders don't know exactly how much money was lost, because they had yet to count the gifts before leaving the church early Sunday afternoon.

Christmas giving in years past typically has amounted to $20,000 to $25,000 -- double or triple what the church gets from collections in a normal weekend, Kraft said.

"Evidently, someone was planning this. This wasn't a last-minute thought," he said. "It may be a total stranger, but more likely it's someone who's been in this building."

In addition to its 2,000 to 2,500 members, the church has thousands of other people who come through the building at various times of the year to access congregational ministries.

The unrepentant bandit or bandits might even have hidden inside the church after the final Christmas service at 11 a.m. Sunday, the pastor noted.

Worship concluded after noon.

"It was a wonderful service," said Kraft, who stuck around the sprawling church at 6864 Campbell Boulevard until about 1 p.m.

Normally, the church immediately deposits its weekend collections at a nearby bank. But because of the holiday, church leaders decided to wait until later to make the deposit.

Church staff discovered the broken doors and missing donations early Monday.

Most of the stolen contributions were believed to be checks, and church leaders were trying to get word out so that donors could stop payment on the checks and issue new ones.

Past Christmas collections usually had between $3,000 and $5,000 in cash gifts, Kraft said.

"What's really sad is the cash offerings are the ones given by the poorer people," he said. "Their gift to God has been taken by someone."

Pendleton Center was the second area United Methodist Church burglarized in the last week.

Buffalo police were investigating a break-in that occurred between 6 p.m. Dec. 20 and 9 a.m. Dec. 21 at Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, 641 Masten Ave. A stained-glass window was broken, and several items, including a computer, were stolen, with damage estimated at more than $5,000.

Upper New York Resident Bishop Marcus Matthews last week urged area Methodists to pray for the congregation at Christmas.

"As we celebrate the hope and light of the world in the birth of Jesus Christ, we must be mindful that all is not well in the world," Matthews said in a statement. "There are people who are so much in need that they resort to stealing from what we consider as holy places."

The Buffalo News also reported in September that break-ins and graffiti appeared to be on an upswing at area houses of worship, prompting cash-strapped congregations to spend money for security improvements and costly repairs.

None of the previous church thefts this year was anywhere near as large was what the Pendleton church lost, though.

Kraft said his congregation will implement changes in how it handles money, including the purchase of a large safe, new locks and other security improvements. "We won't be keeping any cash of any significance on the site in the future," he added.

The stolen money probably means the church will be able to do "a little less ministry" in 2012, but it "isn't going to stop what we do. We'll go forward," Kraft said.

As for whoever stole the money, Kraft hopes that someday he can address the media again, but with news about somebody who turned himself in, transformed his life and joined the congregation. "I'd love to be able to have that story," he said.

Despite the appalling nature of the crime, the congregation is willing to pardon the sinner or sinners, he added.

"God's in the forgiveness business, and so are we," Kraft said. "Obviously, there's always room for forgiveness."