A PRICELESS 15th century wooden statue of the Madonna and Child has been stolen from Prinknash Abbey near Painswick. Benedictine monks at the abbey believe the 20 inch high Flemish Oak statue - once owned by Sir Thomas More around the time of Henry VIII has been stolen to order for a crooked art collector. "It is too distinctive ever to be sold on the open market and we believe it has been stolen for a private collection," said distraught Father Stephen, one of the 18 monks who live and work at the Abbey. "I feel a deep sense of personal loss - there is a vacuum here now that it has gone. "It has been the focus of our devotion and prayer for the last 77 years." The dark oak statue was in the Abbey Church at the Monastery and was taken at about 7.30pm on Friday night - when all the monks were at supper. "We suspect it was somebody who had 'cased the joint' as they say, and knew there would be no-one in the church at that time," said Father Stephen.

"We are sure that the thief knew what he was looking for because although this piece was the most valuable and important in the church it was by no means the most eye catching.

"We feel sure the stolen statue will not be offered on the open market - it is impossible to put a value on it but I am sure if it went for auction it would fetch many thousands of pounds."

He said the Madonna and Child statue was presented to the Community in 1925 when they were based at Caldey Island in Wales. Then they took it with them when they moved to Prinknash in 1928.

"This theft is a great blow to the community and we would appeal to anyone with any information about its whereabouts to contact the police," said Father Stephen.

Prinknash Abbey is best known for its Pottery, which was run by the monks themselves until they sold it in 1996 to the Welsh Porcelain Company.

The white-habited monks had built up the Pottery into a business generating a £1 million a year turnover.

But they sold it after deciding it was time for a more commercial operation to take charge, leaving them to concentrate on their religious devotions.