When the First United Presbyterian Church in Darlington, Beaver County, burned to the ground in 1917, members turned to their traditional fundraiser, selling homemade apple butter, to help rebuild.
Church elders said Wednesday they are "sickened" that this tradition has been jeopardized after the copper kettles used to make the apple butter were stolen Friday.
Six of the seven kettles, which are about 3 feet tall and wide and weigh about 50 pounds, were stolen from their hangers in the church's garage Friday.
"Our church members felt betrayed and violated, and we struggle with that," said church elder Kevin Vosler, 58, of Ohioville.
Almost every October since the beginning of the past century, church and community members have made apple butter over fires in the church parking lot, then sold it as a fundraiser. In recent years, the church used the money for mission trips to Lackawanna and New Orleans.
"It was a good fellowship working with everybody," said Chuck McGaffick, 83, of South Beaver, who has belonged to the church since he was 6 months old.
He said he would lead peeling and coring the apples on Friday night, then wake up at 4 a.m. to get the fires going before people arrived.
"We made it in smoldering hot weather, we made it in rain and we made it in snow," Mr. McGaffick said. "One time a hot air balloon flew over and we talked to them and they said it smelled so good they came back that afternoon."
The church's pastor asked for prayers for the people responsible. The kettles, some of which date to the 19th century, were donated to the church by different members.
"Whoever did this has to be really desperate to steal from a church," Mr. Vosler said.
South Beaver Police Chief Dan McClean said officers have checked with every scrap and antique shop for miles, but the kettles have not turned up. A local antique shop said each kettle would sell for $300 to $400.
Many members of the community have called with leads and police are still investigating.
"They're big things," Chief McClean said. "They've got to be somewhere."
Mr. Vosler said he hopes the fundraiser can continue even if the kettles are not found.
"I don't see why this should stop us," he said.
One church member has already called to donate his mother's kettle after she passed away.
Peter Sullivan: 412-263-1939 or email@example.com.