DURHAM — Weeks after historical artifacts were stolen during two break-ins at the vacant West Durham Methodist Church, police have told Durham Historical Society members they’re unlikely to see the items again.
News broke July 11 that someone had stolen a flag, a wooden cross, a memorial plaque and photos, among other items, from the historic church. Many of the items had been featured in an old newspaper photo of author Stephen King giving a sermon at the church, next to his childhood home.
A Durham Historical Society Facebook post about the break-in has been viewed over 100,000 times, according to Chairwoman Tia Wilson.
“Because of the publicity we’ve gotten, (the police) said whoever took them has probably disposed of them,” Wilson said Tuesday, adding, “I wish they would just leave them by the front doors of the church and drive away.”
Wilson has been checking eBay and online yard sale sites regularly to see if any of the items pop up and has reached out to local pawn shops and resale businesses.
She is not sure the overall value of the items taken, but estimated that they were at least worth several hundred dollars. Some photos that were taken turned out to be reproductions, she said, which gave them some comfort. The wooden cross was made by a former member of the church and therefore priceless to the church, she said. The plaque memorializing another member was made of copper or brass and probably worth quite a bit too, she added.
Another plaque dedicating the 214-year-old church as a United Methodist historical site marker was also taken. Wilson initially believed it was a marker designating the spot on the National Register of Historic Places. She has raised $275 to replace the original plaque, she said, and is now seeking approval from the town to hang a National Register plaque, which a local business has offered to pay for.
The church has been vacant for years, she said. She believes the break-ins were a two-person job, and with the seemingly-specific items taken, can’t help but think it is tied to the photo of King.
The break-in was discovered in late June during a tour with a family interested in King-related locations. That came about a week before a second break-in.
The thief or thieves entered the building through a side window that had been left unsecured and left through the front door, which is ordinarily dead-bolted.
There has been an outpouring of “anger and disgust” since news spread, Wilson said. “People are outraged. I couldn’t believe how many people spoke up about it.”
She believes someone knows who has the stolen items and hopes that person can find it in their heart to bring them back.
“If the person who took them has read the comments and the articles and the posts, I hope they can forgive themselves for such a horrible act,” she said. “Everyone in town will eventually move on, but they’ll have to live with themselves” and hopefully, “in the future, they’ll make better decisions.”
Nothing can replace the artifacts that were taken, but there has been a silver lining: Renewed interest in the Historical Society. Since the break-ins, membership has nearly tripled, from five members to 17. For a small group that has had trouble attracting members in the past, Wilson said, it’s exciting and is the largest number they have had in at least 10 years.
“I hope the people stay and help so we can spread the news and continue working to preserve” Durham’s history, she said.