By DAVID WILKES
24th August 2006
The beautiful stained glass window in St Luke's church. It depicts the fourth apostle as being feminine looking.
Until recently, the 14th century church was a place to enjoy some peace and contemplation.
But now things have radically changed for St Luke's Church in the village of Hodnet, Shropshire, with visitors lured by claims that it is linked to the Holy Grail mystery.
And some, it seems, will go to any lengths to discover the beautiful church's secrets - even if it means taking a hammer and chisel to the walls.
The Reverend Charmian Beech blamed a pair of 'Da Vinci Code-style' treasure hunters for causing thousands of pounds worth of damage as they searched for clues to help them find the Grail.
Stonework was chipped off in four areas inside her church as the offenders tried to remove blocks from the walls to see what is behind them, she said.
The chief suspects are two shadowy Italian men who visited the church that day.
Mrs Beech said: "They have taken a hammer and chisel and gouged great big bits of the stone wall.
"Any deliberate damage to a holy place is a serious offence so we are really upset.
"Normally we are delighted to receive so many interested visitors but we are now having to review our security measures and install a surveillance camera."
St Luke's does not feature in Dan Brown's book the Da Vinci Code, which explores theories that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that the couple had a child, that their bloodline still exists and that the bloodline is the 'Grail'.
The thriller focuses on the idea that the figure of St John in Leonardo Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper is really Mary Magdalene.
In the wake of the hype surrounding the worldwide bestseller and the recently released film version, St Luke's has become a magnet for Grail hunters because of its 150-year-old stained glass window which features a feminine looking St John.
Some theorists claim the clean-shaven figure is really a depiction of Mary Magdalene.
Another theory about the Grail is that it is the cup which, in the Bible, Mary Magdalene used for the perfume with which she anointed Jesus' feet before wiping them with her hair.
Historian and Arthurian legend expert Graham Phillips, whose books include The Search For The Grail, claims to have discovered what could be this artefact hidden in a statue in Hawkstone Park near St Luke's Church and discusses links with St Luke's Church on his website.
The offenders who struck at St Luke's on August 11 climbed onto a window sill below the stained glass window, causing £800 damage to a nearby organ pipe in the process, before chipping away at the wall.
They then chiselled away at three other sections of wall in other parts of the church. It is estimated the total damage to the stonework will cost 'thousands' to repair.
Mrs Beech dismisses the Jesus and Mary Magdalene marriage story as a "complete myth" and is adamant the figure in her stained glass window is St John.
She is keen to trace the two Italian men, a father and son, but believes they have now returned to Italy.
"They were in the church at the right time and I would like to ask them some questions,' she said.
"It is very mysterious because it happened in the middle of the day last Friday. We had a lady in the church working on a flower arrangement and the bell ringers were in the church as well."
Of the two Italians, she added tongue-in-cheek: "Who knows, maybe they came over from the Vatican."
The pair did not break in or steal anything.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Lichfield said: "The Da Vinci Code is fiction, and while it's a very exciting read it's wrong to use that as an excuse to vandalise a very ancient and important church."
A Police spokesman said: "We were informed that some stone blocks had been tampered with in the church and we are appealing for any witnesses,"