by Marco Corvaglia
§ 1. Marija, the US Community... and the Judicial Chronicles
The Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavlović Lunetti goes overseas almost every year to a U.S. community (entirely devoted to the worship of the Madonna of Medjugorje) founded by Mr. Terry Colafrancesco and called Caritas. It is headquartered in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama.
When she is there, Marija claims to see Our Lady standing over the the bed of the Colafrancescos and, in important occasions, near a pine tree in a huge field of 134 acres, where on 24 November 1988 there was her first apparition at the community.
This religious group has gained much publicity and visibility in the U.S. by hosting many times (167 from 1988 to 2012), year after year, Marija Pavlović's daily apparitions.
So it is particularly interesting and significant to know the doctrines that are observed in the community and the legal proceedings that involved it.
On 20 March 2011 The Birmingham News has published an article (Spreading the Word of Caritas: Headquarters Grows As Visionary Returns to Alabama), by Greg Garrison.
In it we can read:
Caritas has just spent more than $8 million on expansion at its main building.
Terry Colafrancesco himself, the former landscaper who founded the community, has said to the newspaper:
Annual donations to Caritas have tripled from a few years ago, to between $3 million and $4 million.
On the occasion of this 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 [...] The 156 apparitions on the sacred ground of Caritas have occurred in 1988, 1989, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, July/August 2005, November 2005, 2008, February 2009, and July 2009.
On 1 July 2012 The Birmingham News reported about a new visit of Marija (Virgin Mary visionary returns to Shelby County, by Greg Garrison).
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.
When Maria is there, every year thousands of pilgrims flock from all over the United States, but "the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham forbids priests from saying Mass at Caritas", the newspaper The Birmingham News on July 2, 2008 writes.
On 26 March 2001, the Birmingham Post-Herald published an article 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.
We were in a continuous state of people being overloaded with too much work, said Flynn, who left last year with his family and now lives in Michigan. With the lack of sleep it would take on a tone of insanity.
On 13 December 2001, move also the newspaper Montgomery Advertiser in an article 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. [....]
The lawsuit claims Colafrancesco persuaded Lunetti to come to Alabama the first time and continues bringing her to the state "to attract individuals to live at Caritas and work for him full time to raise money and do other things".
The organization reported $3.8 million in assets and $1.8 million in income in 1999, according to Internal Revenue Service forms.
Colafrancesco said the lawsuit was timed to coincide with Lunetti's visit. They're trying to wreck this, he said.
On 28 December 2004, the Birmingham News reports:
Former residents and parents of residents accuse the Shelby County, Alabama, Caritas of Birmingham community, led by Terry Colafrancesco, of fraud, misrepresentation, undue influence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment. They say Colafrancesco lures devout Catholics to Caritas and then takes all their money. [....]
Colafrancesco created Caritas following the 1988 vision of a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina who reported experiencing visitations from the Virgin Mary while standing in Colafrancesco’s pasture. She continues to have visions during her periodic returns to the US, and her most recent visit drew thousands of pilgrims.
The community draws its membership from such people, who give up their property when they move into Caritas. The community also receives donations from the devout around the world. Caritas, which the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize, operates a school, sawmill, gift shop, and farm.
On 8 March 2005, the Birmingham Post-Herald publishes an article 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".