The 214-year-old Methodist Church on Runaround Pond Road in Durham. Durham Historical Society

DURHAM — In the Durham Historical Society archives is an old newspaper photo of author Stephen King giving a sermon at the Methodist Church not far from his childhood home.

Durham Historical Society Chair Tia Nadeau Wilson points to the spot on the Methodist Church that used to grace a National Register of Historic Places plaque, which was stolen in a recent theft. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

In that photo, several items can be seen. Among them: a flag, a cross and a memorial plaque hanging on a wall.

All of those items are gone now after a series of break-ins at the church on Runaround Pond Road — break-ins that culminated Tuesday with a mysterious woman walking out of the locked church in the dark of night.

Among the items taken was a plaque, hung on the the front of the building in 2003 to designate the 214-year-old church as listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The thief or thieves entered the building through a side window that had been left unsecured. From inside the building, several items were stolen, including a plaque that memorialized a former member of the congregation.

“They took a pry bar and took that out,” said Tia Nadeau Wilson, chairwoman of the Durham Historical Society. “They left the ornate screws but they took the plaque. It’s like they knew which items were worth money.”

Thieves also took a variety of black-and-white photos detailing the history of the church, of the town and of the people who lived there.

“They left the frames and took the photos out,” Wilson said. “It’s really strange.”

A 1984 Sun Journal photo of author Stephen King delivering a sermon at the Methodist Church in Durham. The photo might be related to a recent string of thefts at the church. Durham Historical Society

Some items seemed to be targeted so specifically Wilson cannot help but think that it is somehow related to King and that 1984 photo of the famed author at the pulpit. King fans, of course, are known to be passionate about collectibles, although most would likely balk at stealing them from a place of worship.

“I think there’s something morbid going on,” Wilson said.

Police are investigating the break-ins — but so are Wilson and a large segment of the local community. One Facebook post about the burglaries had been viewed more than 54,000 times by Thursday afternoon, according to Wilson.

Many people were promising to keep their eyes open for the stolen loot. Others, including Wilson, were taking more active roles.

“I sent out over a hundred emails today to historical societies, pawn shops, antique stores, scrap metal businesses,” Wilson said. “I reached out to anybody and everybody I could, really.”

Her curiosity was also piqued by a neighbor’s story about seeing a lone figure walking out of the church Tuesday night. When the neighbor called out to the figure, a woman’s voice answered back before that woman got into her car and drove off.

One of several black and white photos stolen from the Methodist Church in Durham. Durham Historical Society

The thefts were discovered a short time later. In order to dissuade any further break-ins, Wilson removed what little was left inside the church and took it to another location.

“We took all of the remaining items out of the church,” she said, “and brought them over to the historical society, because there’s an alarm on that building.”

Many of the items taken cannot be replaced, Wilson said. The old photos, the flag, a parament and the cross, among them.

But Wilson would like to replace the National Register of Historic Places plaque on the front of the building and, to that end, a fundraiser has been set up to help raise money to pay for it. Wilson estimates it will cost between $100 and $600.

The church, standing not far from the corner at Route 9, has always been a cherished landmark, and not only because of the King connection.

The church was built in 1805 and modernized in 1867. The congregation for which it was built grew out of a Methodist revival meeting held at the site in 1804, according to Wikipedia. It was one of the first Methodist congregations in the state and it is said to be the second oldest in all of New England.

While thousands were clicking on the Facebook pages detailing the losses in the burglaries, many people were also weighing in with their thoughts on the nature of a person greedy enough to steal from a church.

“That makes me so very mad,” wrote one local woman. “Who does such a thing? I hope whoever did this will get caught and will have to pay dearly for it.”

“What is wrong with people?” wondered another.

“So sad,” a third woman wrote on the Durham Historical Society Facebook page, “but the spirit of the church lives on.”

By late in the day Thursday, about 100 people had weighed in with their comments, while another 400 had shared the posts, spreading the news far and wide and enlisting more people to the cause of recovering the stolen goods.

“The outpouring of concern and love from our community has been extremely heartfelt and appreciated,” Wilson wrote on Facebook.

“I have so much love and passion for this town’s history. To see this town and other communities around us come together and dedicate a few moments of their time to spread the word about the stolen items has made my heart want to burst.”

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