The investigation continues into Thursday's daring act of theft and destruction at Tamaqua's Primitive Methodist Church and church officials fear that costs to rectify the damage will be substantial.

The Rev. Rodney Hall estimates that the house of worship sustained some $10,000 in damage to the heating system, along with the theft of meats and frozen goods from the church's food bank.

The destruction has dealt a blow to the congregation.

With Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, the church was prepared to offer aid to those in need.

Instead, volunteers, local plumbers and insurance adjusters were on hand Thursday throughout the day in order to stabilize conditions inside what is officially known as the 1887 American Primitive Methodist Church Centennial Tabernacle. The house of worship is recognized as the nation's oldest such denomination, having originated in 1830.

In cover of darkness, vandals tore out virtually all of the copper pipes from the large church's central heating system, including pipes leading to the furnace, bath and kitchen areas.

Volunteer Rick Clemson said the damage and loss was discovered very early Thursday.

"The doors of the freezer cases were left open but the few food items remaining hadn't begun to defrost," he said, leading church officials to believe that the theft and vandalism had just taken place in pre-dawn hours.

In fact, the vandals had turned on lights to see what they were doing, Clemson said.

To avoid detection, the vandals grabbed a painting of "Jesus Praying at Gethsemane," turned it sideways, and shoved it into a deep-set windowsill at basement level to keep neighbors from noticing the light at the window. Garbage bags were used at other windows for the same purpose, Clemson said.

The emboldened vandals also ate cupcakes and drank juices from the church kitchen while they engaged in the destruction, church officials said.

Doors of all drawers and cabinets were left open after the ransacking, and dirt smudges from their soiled hands could be found on walls, cabinets and appliances.

Hall said early today that the church had expected to help "quite a few" local residents with provisions from the food bank.

"We're a small pantry. We help as needed."

When asked how the public might help, he responded that the church would welcome monetary donations designated for the food bank. The church's address is 55 Hunter St., Tamaqua, Pa. 18252.

Copper pipe thefts have become widespread in the local region and beyond. Police say the typical targets are unattended homes, unused rental or vacation homes and houses under construction.

Tamaqua Crime Watch is offering a $300 reward, with the money to be donated to the church due to circumstances, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the burglars.

Anyone with tips or information is asked to contact Tamaqua police at 570-668-5000.