For the last two years, the members of Magothy Chelsea Community Lutheran Church have poured everything they had into renovating the tiny, stucco chapel at Third Street and Beach Avenue.
But now, just as they are coming down the home stretch, they fear someone might ruin all the sawing and sanding, plastering and painting they've done.
Vandals have broken into the church four times in the last six months. And although the losses have been minimal so far, "each time they get a little bolder, they do a little more," said Grace Sutherland, president of the Ladies' Guild.
"We're afraid that one of these times they're really going to hurt us," she said.
The church was built in 1949 by community residents who bought cinder blocks for 25 cents each, donated their time and energy for the construction project and raised more money in local bars.
"At the time, the only other public buildings in the community were three bars," recounted the Rev. John Lynch, the current pastor. "So they set up collection jars on the bars and people threw in change."
The congregation had shrunk to only a few members by the mid 1980s, but it began to expand again when Mr. Lynch took over as the full-time pastor in 1985. The building, however, had fallen into disrepair.
It got so bad that when they tried to put new shingles on the roof, the ceiling in the Sunday school room came crashing down, recalled Tom Foster, one of the original church members.
"That's what started it," added Jim Sutherland, Grace's husband. "In the winter, the children couldn't meet in the Sunday school room without wearing overcoats. And then the roof fell in."
The Ladies Guild staged Christmas bazaars and strawberry festivals. They put on monthly fund-raising breakfasts on Saturdays and sold subs. "And next month we're gonna wash cars," Mrs. Sutherland said. "I don't know how they talked me into it, but we're going to do it."
They picked up $200 here, $300 there. And when a bill came, they tried to pay it.
"We didn't make that much, but we were happy with what we made," Mrs. Sutherland recalled.
Meanwhile, other members replaced the roof and began work on the Sunday school room. They covered the bare, cinder block walls, insulated them and put up drywall.
They expanded the altar, replaced the carpet in the sanctuary, covered those cinder block walls with insulation and drywall and hung new lights and fans, then moved onto the fellowship hall downstairs.
Some of the new furnishings and equipment was donated; other items were purchased at a reduced price.
And somehow, they never missed a Sunday service, despite the chaos of the renovation. "We just cleaned up as best we could and held services," Mr. Sutherland said.
With only a few things left to do, the break-ins started.
About six months ago, someone broke a window to get into the downstairs hall, rooted through the hall and took a petty cash box belonging to an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter that meets in the church.
A few weeks later, someone broke a bigger hole in the window and apparently started upstairs, but fled out the back door when lights flashed on, Mrs. Sutherland said.
Church members arriving to paint walls last month found pry marks on one of the doors.
And over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, someone broke a window latch, bent screens into impossible shapes, rooted through the cupboards and the refrigerator, drank soft drinks, ate doughnuts and defecated in the kitchen sink.
"As far as we can tell, they didn't take anything, unless it's something so inconsequential we haven't noticed it," Mrs. Sutherland said. "We're so disappointed. . . . We've been working so hard, and now it seems like we take one step forward and two steps back."