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Father Robert Rien, of St. Ignatius of Antioch, looks over the new fencing on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, in Antioch, Calif. Then fence will be installed around the church property to prevent copper thieves from striking again. The church has been hit five times by copper thieves and with the new fencing and security alarms around the property Father Rien hopes to stop the thieves from stealing any more copper. The church parishioners have been taking watch outside the church from midnight until dawn to help protect their church. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

As burglaries continue to plague Antioch, several faith communities are going to extremes to guard their property.

Bundled in layers of long johns, gloves, parkas and ski caps, Bobby Zabroski and Bob Plurkowski kept an eye out for thieves one recent chilly Monday morning at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic church.

Burglars hit the church on Contra Loma Boulevard four times in two months earlier this year, twice taking about 500 yards of copper wire from an outside conduit and leaving the church without power hours before a worship service.

"It really makes you stop and question if anything is sacred anymore," said Plurkowski, a parishioner since the church's founding three decades ago.

After the most recent theft in September, about three dozen parishioners volunteered to watch the grounds of the 8.5-acre lot from about midnight to dawn.

Plurkowski and Zabroski alternated patrolling on foot and driving around with high-beam headlights.

"We're trying to let people know we're here," Plurkowski said.

Volunteers are told to call police if they see suspicious activity, he said.

"I really feel like I'm working in (God's) vineyard," said Zabroski, waving a flashlight in a poorly lit area of shrubs on a hill behind the building.

"It's really touched me deeply to see these men come out here at all hours of the night. They're not about to let (the burglaries) deter them from what God is calling them to do," said the Rev. Robert Rien, pastoral administrator at St. Ignatius.

After the last burglary, Rien said Antioch police toured the property and told him there are so many places to hide that it's "almost indefensible."

In a couple instances, including Saturday morning, would-be burglars have been chased out of the parking lot.

"I think that human presence has made a big difference," Rien said.

Volunteers pass most of the time telling stories, with the occasional entertainment of watching a tussle between stray cats, Zabroski said.

According to Antioch police statistics, violent crime has declined this year, but there has been a spike in burglaries. A popular target for burglars has been copper from churches, schools, streetlights and PG&E power lines.

Churchgoers have also had personal items stolen.

Antioch's other Catholic church, Most Holy Rosary, is forming a committee of volunteer parishioners that watches over the parking lot during weekend liturgies to drive away would-be thieves.

Holy Rosary parishioners Joseph Cadena and Miguel Herrera said thieves routinely target open windows and car doors in the parking lot. A couple months ago, a purse was stolen from the back of a secured area of the church during a service, they said.

"We want to show a presence and dissuade people from that activity," Cadena said.

First Missionary Baptist Church pastor Phil Wright said ushers watch for suspicious people entering the parking lot.

"It's very delicate. We don't want to run potential attendees away, but if they're lurking around and trying to see what they can get into, then it's time to leave," he said.

Said R. Mario Howell, pastor at Antioch Church Family: "It's a desperate time for everyone, and people are starting to look at churches."

Antioch Church Family and St. John's Lutheran Church, also in Antioch, say they have not witnessed a recent uptick in burglaries, something they attribute in part to surveillance cameras.

"It seems to come through in waves," said the Rev. Linda Vogelgesang, pastor at St. John's.

The church's air-conditioning units were stolen two years ago, and a burglar was injured during another attempt, she said.

St. Ignatius plans to install a wrought-iron fence around the perimeter of the property by Christmas, Rien said. The church raised about $47,000 for the fence and electric gate system.

The fence should deter intruders, Rien said.

"It will be good for these men to finally get back to their families and get a good night's sleep. They're very tired," he said.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.