by Marco Corvaglia
The Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavlović Lunetti goes almost every year (generally in the first week of July) to a U.S. community entirely devoted to the worship of the Madonna of Medjugorje, owned by a former landscaper, Mr. Terry Colafrancesco, and called Caritas. It is headquartered in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama.
In this article we will consider the strange doctrines that are taught in the Caritas community, the legal proceedings that involved it and the predilection that the Madonna of Medjugorje shows for it.
As we shall see, this religious group has gained much publicity and visibility by hosting year after year (176 from 1988 to 2013) Marija Pavlović's daily apparitions and by drawing thousands of pilgrims from all over the US.
On 1 July 2013, The Birmingham News reported (in the article Mountaintop cross built in Shelby County as woman who claims Virgin Mary visions arrives, by Greg Garrison):
Caritas reports income of between $3 million and $4 million a year, mostly from donations.
When she is there, Marija claims to see Our Lady appearing while standing over the bed of the Colafrancescos.
However, on “important occasions”, in particular in connection with Independence Day (July 4), national holiday in the United States, the Gospa (Our Lady of Medjugorje) makes an appointment with Marija near a pine tree in a huge field of 134 acres, owned by Mr. Colafrancesco.
In the official website of the community, one can read this 2 July 2013 communiqué (July 2 Update: Our Lady's Apparition For July 3, 'Same Time, Same Place...'):
In 2008 for the July 1-5 apparitions, Our Lady shocked everyone by choosing to appear in the Field for the July 3 vigil apparition for the feast of Independence Day. In 2009 and 2012, Our Lady again repeated Her apparition in the Field for the July 3rd vigil apparition. Our Lady's choice tonight broke from the pattern of the last years, and is a wonderful sign that She is indeed guiding and directing the events here.
For these "important occasions", Our Lady of Medjugorje honors the Colafrancesco’s community even with additional and unusual apparitions. Again in the official website, on 3 July 2013, one can read (July 3 Update: Our Lady to Appear Second Time Tonight 10:30 PM!):
During tonight's apparition which took place in the Bedroom of Apparitions, Our Lady told Marija that She would again appear in the Field at 10:30 P.M. for a second apparition today. Everyone was moved hearing about this incredible grace. This is a special grace and opportunity not only for those gathered at Caritas, but for those following from your homes, gather your family, friends, prayer group members, neighbors, everyone, to pray in unison with those in the Field at Caritas, Alabama for the vigil feast of the Birth of the United States.
On the occasion of the Marija's stay of March 2011, in the official website of the community we can read, inter alia:
Marija Arrives - Our Lady of Medjugorje Waits to Have Apparition
Medjugorje visionary, Marija Lunetti, arrived today at Caritas in the evening of March 18th. Normally, when Marija is traveling, Our Lady appears at the same time of Her apparitions in Medjugorje, around 6:40 p.m. However, today, the Caritas Community was given a beautiful grace in that Our Lady waited to appear to Marija until after she arrived, about 7 hours past the normal apparition time. [....]
The two sites of the Bedroom and Field of Apparitions, located at Caritas, have been graced by 156 apparitions of the Virgin Mary over the past 21 years.
In this report you can see a photo of Marija kneeling at the foot of the Colafrancesco's bed, during the apparition of 23 March 2011.
On this page you can see a summary of the stay of Marija in July 2009, with pictures depicting the bed of the apparitions.
On 26 March 2001, the Birmingham Post-Herald published an article ("Faith or Folly?") written by Sara Foss, where one can read:
Accusations of brainwashing and money laundering plague an area religious group as some unhappy members leave. Terry Colafrancesco started Caritas in Shelby County in 1987 to promote the experience of Medjugorje, the Eastern European village where six youngsters reported seeing the Virgin Mary.
Today, Caritas has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, complete with families who live there year-round, a travel agency that offers trips to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a publishing arm and even a farm. [....] Terry has always had the philosophy that he doesn't respond to people who say bad things about him, said Birmingham attorney Joseph Ritchey, who does legal work for Caritas. In his mind, if he were to respond to criticism [...] he's giving credibility to anything they have to complain about. [....] I don't think there's anything terrible going on out there. If I did, I wouldn't represent them. [....]
Former residents aren't the only people expressing concern about Caritas. The Franciscan priests who live in Medjugorje and minister to religious pilgrims also have voiced concerns about Caritas. In an August letter, Rev. Kraljevic Svetozar wrote: Here in Medjugorje, in the name of the priests who are working in the parish with pilgrims who are coming from all over the world, I express my deep concern for the organization called Caritas from Birmingham, Alabama. It appears that the organization does not follow good practice of Church discipline as well as the discipline of its members in regard to their ways in which they are organized within. We are afraid that there might be elements of a lack of respect for family relationships, mutual respect, respect for the church authority, respect for the families where the members came from, respect for property of family members who are there now and those who were there and left the community.
On March 28, 2001 an Associated Press release was spread, in which, among other things, is written:
Ex-residents including one-time Colafrancesco lieutenant Pat Flynn accuse Colafrancesco of personally profiting from their donations and overworking both adults and children who live at the site.
On 13 December 2001, move also the newspaper Montgomery Advertiser in an article ("Religious group faces lawsuit labeling it a cult") written by Jay Reeeves, also talks about the lawsuit filed against Mr. Colafrancesco by former guests of his community:
The suit claims Caritas has assets of about $5.9 million gained both through legitimate donations, pressure tactics and shady business deals. [....] It's just bitterness, Colafrancesco said Tuesday, declining to respond to specific allegations. [....]
The suit was filed Friday, just days before the arrival at Caritas of Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, who has reported having visions of Christ's mother for about two decades. [....] Thousands of people came to a rolling pasture when Lunetti first visited Alabama in 1981 to donate a kidney to her ailing brother during a transplant operation in Birmingham. Only a small organization at the time, Caritas has since become one of the largest organizations dedicated to spreading the messages of Medjugorje.
On 28 December 2004, the Birmingham News reports in an article ("Mediation ordered in Caritas lawsuit") by Nancy Wilstach:
The lawsuit, brought by former residents and parents of residents, accuses Caritas of fraud, misrepresentation, undue influence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. It claims Colafrancesco entices devout Catholics to Caritas and then drains their assets.
The community began after a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, traveled to Sterrett in 1988 and reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's pasture similar to those she reported experiencing for two decades in her Eastern European home. She has returned periodically over the last 17 years and reported more visions. Her last visit, in May, drew thousands of people from across the country.
Colafrancesco became spiritual leader of the Caritas Community, and donations started to flow to the community from around the world.
On 8 March 2005, the Birmingham Post-Herald publishes an article ("Mediation may end dispute at Caritas") by Daniel Jackson, in which updates on the progress of the process are provided:
Parties in the case will begin court-ordered mediation on March 30. [....] The mediation proceedings are closed to the public. [....]
About 30 longtime residents, including Flynn, left Caritas in 1999 and 2000, complaining of grueling work, inadequate schooling for children, money laundering, and misuse of donations and brainwashing by Colafrancesco.
Suzette Malveaux, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said many cases are settled confidentially without a public airing of the complaints. [...] If Colafranceso settles with the plaintiffs in mediation, the public may never learn all of the details in the complaints against him.
On 7 April 2005, an Associated Press release states:
A confidential settlement has been reached in a lawsuit against the Caritas religious group by former members who claimed they were brainwashed and drained of assets.
The settlement, mediated by Birmingham lawyer Arthur Hanes Jr., also settled similar suits involving Caritas in federal and state courts in California and Florida.
Terry Colafrancesco of Shelby County, near Birmingham, founded Caritas as a resident organization after a 1988 visit from an Eastern European woman who reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's cow pasture. [....]
Marija Pavlovic Lunetti has returned periodically over the last 17 years and reported more visions. Her last visit, in May, drew thousands of people from across the country, and donations flow to Caritas from around the world. Lunetti is scheduled to return to Caritas in August. [....]
Caritas' lawyer, Daniel Burnick, told The Birmingham News for a story Thursday that "all litigation between the parties has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. The terms and conditions of the resolution are to be kept confidential, as agreed on by all parties".