More than 40 headstones at a historic church cemetery in Plymouth were toppled and broken over the weekend, including limestone tablets dating from the 1870s, some of which are so fragile that they cannot be repaired.

The Rev. Terry Rassmussen, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church of Plymouth and New Hope, said the vandalism left him shocked, saddened and angry.

"I know people do Halloween pranks, but this was more than a prank," said Rassmussen, who lives next to the picturesque church with its white steeple, built on a hill only a dozen years after the end of the Civil War. "This was such destruction of property and desecration of graves that it's an awful thing."

Plymouth police said on Monday that they don't have any suspects or leads in the case, which caused up to $15,000 in damage and has left church officials trying to notify family members of those buried in the vandalized graves. The church said it would do its best to repair the ones it could.

Rassmussen suspects that the headstones were damaged between 9 and 11 p.m. Friday. An outdoor light illuminates the church parking lot and the edge of the cemetery, and he noticed just before going to bed that one or two markers had fallen. That happens occasionally, and he resolved to check the stones first thing in the morning.

On Saturday, he found that several of the oldest headstones, their weathered engravings worn nearly smooth, had been snapped off. Thicker column-shaped markers adorned with stone crosses on top had been pushed down and lay cracked and separated into three or four pieces. Large granite headstones had been tipped off their bases. Pieces of four or five gravestones were thrown into the woods. One stout marker in the shape of a cross, engraved only with "Our Baby Boy," had been yanked from its spot and dragged 25 feet into the high grass.

"I can't imagine how anyone can get a thrill out of this kind of destruction," Rassmussen said. Nothing was stolen, as far as he could tell.

He estimated damage at between $10,000 and $15,000 and said the church will "put everything back as best we can." But he acknowledged that not everything can be fixed. "Some of these can't be repaired; they're that fragile and old," he said.

The cemetery is on a hill, surrounded by tall pines and cedars, and is still in active use. It is not visible from nearby roads and is partly surrounded by brush but not by a gate or fence.

An easy target

That may have made it an easy mark for vandals, said Ron Gjerde, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries.

"I don't think this scale of damage is real widespread," he said. "But almost any cemetery that has upright monuments is going to experience the tipping over of some, usually by mischievous young people thinking they're having a little fun."

Gjerde said cemetery vandalism was more commonplace 35 or 40 years ago but still occurs occasionally at almost any time of year -- not necessarily near Halloween. Wherever and whenever it occurs, he said, it's "disrespectful and hurtful" to families and congregations.

Parish business manager John Olson said that headstones are the personal property of the families of the deceased, and he is notifying those whom he can find. In some cases the families may be able to pay for stones to be remounted, he said, but in other cases where no relatives can be found, the church will do its best to have the damage repaired.

Gjerde said that in some cases headstones are covered by homeowners' insurance policies.

Police said they have assigned a detective to the case. "I wish there was something we could tell you, because it's got a lot of people riled up," said Sgt. John Sigfrinius. "Hopefully, someone will come forward with some information."

St. Joseph parishioner Howard Dahlheimer was visiting the cemetery on Monday afternoon and said he heard about the vandalism from Rassmussen at Sunday mass. "Father asked for all of us to pray for the people who did it," he said. "But then he said he hoped that some of them had sprained ankles, and everybody kind of chuckled a little bit."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388