MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – A 126-year-old religious artifact that was accidentally donated to a Goodwill Industries store in Bennington is now the center of a dispute over who owns it – and who should get it.

The item, a 131/2-inch tall chalice-shaped reliquary said to contain bone shards of St. Francis of Assisi and other saints, was given by Goodwill to the Capuchin Franciscans Province of St. Mary in White Plains, N.Y., but Susan Plante of Bennington, who previously had the artifact for a decade, wants it back.

The Rev. Francis Gasparik, the director of the Mission and Development office for the Capuchins in New York City, said he believed Plante’s claim that she had the item before it went to Goodwill, but he wasn’t sure the item could be owned by an individual.

“It can never belong to a person. It’s the patrimony of the entire church,” Gasparik said Friday. “If they obtained it inappropriately through a purchase, they’ve commited the sin of simony.”

The Catholic Church defines simony “as the buying or selling of spiritual things.”

In addition to whether the item could ever have been bought or sold, is the legality of selling items that contain human remains, Gasparik said.

“If it was passed down, then they are deserving to have them,” he said of Plante and her daughter. “If it was so important to them why didn’t they know it was missing until they saw it in the newspaper?”

Earlier this month, the reliquary was found on top of a refrigerator after it had been donated to the Bennington Goodwill. The Pittsfield, Mass.-based Goodwill of the Berkshires, which oversees the Bennington shop, then donated it to the Capuchins.

The artifact has never been appraised. Plante, 54, of Bennington, told the Bennington Banner she bought the item a decade ago for $20 from the Salvation Army. She apprently learned the reliquary was missing by seeing a newspaper story about it.

She said her daughter, Sara Plante, 31, accidentally included it in a number of items given to Goodwill earlier this month while cleaning out her mother’s house.

“I knew it was valuable, and because I’m religious, it meant a lot to me,” Susan Plante told the Banner. “It wasn’t done maliciously at all, but I wouldn’t have wanted it donated.”

Plante told The Associated Press on Friday evening that she still hopes to get the reliquary back. “It meant a lot to me … It was my most prized possession.”

She said she wasn’t sure what to make of Gasparik’s comments about simony and about the legal questions surrounding the ownership of bone fragments.

“They haven’t talked to me about that,” she said.

Gasparik said the bones are stored in a small glass container in the middle of the reliquary. A document, in Latin, that comes with the reliquary indicates it was made in 1882.

“They’re authentic,” Gasparik said of the documents.

St. Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or 1182 in what is now Italy and died in 1226. He founded the Catholic order of the Franciscans. Reliquaries are containers that hold relics of the saints, such as bones or pieces of clothing.

Gasparik said that since Goodwill Industries of the Berksires donated the item to the Capuchins, Goodwill must approve any plan to give it away. The Capuchin board, which will meet at the end of June, must also approve it, Gasparik said.

Tom Speckert, executive director of the Goodwill distribution center in Pittsfield, told the Banner he had received two other calls from people claiming to have donated the reliquary. But Gasparik said the Plantes were the only people to contact the order about the item and Sara Plante accurately described damage not visible in a newspaper photograph.

The priest said after receiving it he sent the reliquary out to be restored. Gasparik said he had planned to ask the board to send the reliquary to a new Capuchin mission in Boston.

Instead, he retrieved it before the restoration work was done. It’s now sitting in his office in Manhatten.

AP-ES-05-30-08 1848EDT

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