By Jeb Phillips, Birmingham Post-Herald
The woman who helped catapult a Shelby County religious community into a multimillion-dollar operation will make a return appearance next month.
Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, who said that as a teenager she saw the Virgin Mary in Bosnia-Herzegovina and as an adult saw her in Sterrett, will come again to the small Shelby County town for a prayer celebration from Dec. 8 through Dec. 14. The event, dubbed the "Seven Days of Prayer," will occur at Caritas of Birmingham, a small farming community that has been accused in recent years of being a cult. Lunetti's last visit to Caritas in 1999 drew a crowd of between 20,000 to 30,000.
Caritas was built around Lunetti's visions, but she doesn't know the full story of the community or she wouldn't keep returning, said two former residents.
"She's a very quiet person," said Mike O'Neill, an Ohio native who lived at Caritas from 1991 to 1998. "She's naive about what's going on. She thinks it's a mission. She doesn't know what a cult is." Members of Caritas did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
Sterrett's Terry Colafrancesco founded Caritas in 1987 to promote the experience of Medjugorje, the town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Lunetti and five others claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. Lunetti came to Alabama in 1988 when she donated a kidney to her brother in an operation at UAB Hospital.
She stayed in Colafrancesco's home and said she had a vision there. Once word got out that a visionary was in Shelby County, thousands traveled to Sterrett to see Lunetti. She said she had another vision on Thanksgiving Day in a field near Colafrancesco's house.
Those visions raised Caritas' profile, so that it is now supported by donations from many Catholics all over the United States. But the visions — both those in Medjugorje and those in Alabama — haven't been authenticated or approved by the Catholic Church. The visions aren't the problem, said Pat Flynn, a former Caritas resident who now lives in Michigan.
Like O'Neill, Flynn said that he believes that Lunetti does receive messages from the Virgin Mary.
"I would describe her as a dedicated person who has a simple love," Flynn said.
But Colafrancesco has used the visions to make money for himself and to control people, Flynn said. About 40 people live at Caritas, and they farm the land around Colafrancesco's house, according to former residents. There are no televisions or newspapers, and residents average about six hours of sleep per night, former residents said.
Colafrancesco lives in a house worth $118,400, according to county records. Caritas residents live in mobile homes.
People calling the Caritas number can be transferred to a recording about the upcoming days of prayer. The recording says that no one will be allowed on Caritas grounds with cameras, pets, chewing gum or lawn chairs. Blankets are encouraged, the recording says, so people can sit on them in the Caritas field.
"Do not complain," the recording says. "This is a seven-day offering of sacrifice, self-denial and spiritual growth."
The recording also says that Caritas has arranged shuttle bus service for pilgrims staying at local hotels.
Flynn and O'Neill said that they and others have tried to tell Lunetti about Caritas, but that Colafrancesco is able to manipulate her.
Phillip Kronzer, a California man who once was a promoter of the Medjugorje visions, filed a lawsuit this year in Sacramento Superior Court against Caritas and similar groups. The lawsuits said the groups had exploited the visions for financial gain.
The lawsuit was dismissed because the court didn't feel it had the right to involve itself in religious matters, said Jonathan Levy, Kronzer's lawyer. Kronzer is appealing that ruling, Levy said. Still, some of the former residents support Lunetti's coming again to Caritas. It's important that people have exposure to her and to her visions, even if they are manipulated, Flynn said.
"If Marija knew the truth, she would distance herself from Colafrancesco immediately," he said.
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