BURGLARS who desecrated a church using sledgehammers and pipe cutters have been slammed as 'heartless' by the parish vicar.

They stole and destroyed a number of historical and irreplaceable artefacts from St Thomas’ Church on Chapel Street in Leigh in a sickening, sacrilegious act of vandalism.

Brass candlesticks and a sound system were among the items stolen and the burglars also cut a Victorian brass lectern of an eagle into pieces, pulled wood panelling dating from the early 1900s off the walls and bashed holes in it, smashed doors, broke chairs and ruined holy icons.

Rev Robert Dixon said: “This horrible incident has left my congregation and people in the community completely heartbroken.

“I find it hard to believe in my heart that someone could desecrate this holy place in such a way with sledge hammers and pipe cutters, just for their own greed.

"It is such a cruel and heartless act.

“I understand, in a way, that people steal if they need something, but to damage and destroy is pointless and is the truly devastating part of all this."

The church closed three years ago due to a range of problems with the building, including asbestos and electrical damage.

Many items of historical importance were left in the building despite Rev Dixon writing to the Diocese of Manchester to ask for them to be stored elsewhere.

He discovered that the church had been burgled and vandalised and some of the items had been stolen or damaged on a routine fire risk assessment of the building on June 14.

Rev Dixon added: “A church is not just a building but a holy place of worship where people experience memories in their emotional lifetime, so it means more than some people realise.

“People in Bedford have already had to face the fact the church had closed. For this burglary and vandalism to be added to their grief is just cruel.

“I would like to thank the fire service and the police for all their help and support with this terrible incident. Hopefully the people responsible can be caught and made to answer for what they have done.”

Police confirmed that they are looking into the incident and that enquiries are ongoing.

Anyone with information should call police on 101.