Pickpocketing on a large scale took place during last Sunday's late morning service at Hyattsville's First United Methodist Church. While the congregation enjoyed the choral singing that First United is known for, a thief or thieves entered a locked choir room and rifled the handbags of 23 choir members for wallets, credit cards, car and house keys. The handbags were left in place and the choir room was relocked.

Donnalee Anderson, who sings in the choir, said that when the service finished shortly after noon she went to the room where members store their robes and valuables. "Several other women had gotten there before me and found their wallets missing, so I looked in my purse and mine was gone, too," she said. She lost $100.

The church on Queensbury and Queens Chapel roads has a highly popular music program. The 60-member choir performs regularly in church concerts in addition to the Sunday service, and church attendance is high. Last Sunday 425 people attended the 11 a.m. service.

The pastor's office and the choir room are on different levels of the church school compound, adjoining the main sanctuary. An unlocked door on the lower level, away from the Sunday hustle and bustle near the sanctuary, provides access to the office.

"We couldn't have been busier on Sunday," church business manager Doris Judd said. "There were classes going on in the church school rooms, there was a special appeal for change so we had people going around for that, and someone at the door giving name tags."

But the brazen thieves evidently do not suffer from fear of crowds. When senior pastor Douglas Cooney returned to his office after leading the 11 a.m. service, he discovered that his set of keys was missing from his desk. A Sunday school teacher saw an unfamiliar couple in their 30s in the hallway of the compound around 11:30 a.m. Members of the congregation speculate that this unfamiliar couple may have gone from the pastor's office to the choir room, keys in hand.

Several women discovered that in addition to their wallets, house keys and identification with their addresses were gone. "I'm going to have my home lock changed. This is very frightening," one said.

City police are investigating the incident.