Caritas of Birmingham
Caritas of Birmingham is an independent organization of Catholics founded by Terry Colafrancesco in 1986 to promote the visions of Mary reported by a group of young people in Međugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1981. It is now one of the world's largest Marian organizations, with publications distributed worldwide.
Despite its popularity, the organization is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and ordained priests are prohibited by Diocese of Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker from leading services at Caritas, but has allowed special masses to be held at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church during pilgrimages. The visions themselves are being investigated by the Vatican, but no official ruling is expected until they cease or are perceived as heretical.
Colafrancesco was among the millions who made pilgrimages to Međugorje. In 1988, Father Slavko Barbaric gave him a crucifix that had hung in his office/bedroom, the place where daily apparitions were then taking place. He asked one of the Bosnian youths who claimed to continue receiving communications from Mary, Marija Pavlovic, to pray over the crucifix before he brought it home. He also learned that Pavlovic's brother, Andrija, was suffering from kidney failure.
Upon his return to the Birmingham airport, Colafrancesco learned from a newspaper story that UAB Hospital was rated as the best in the world for kidney transplants. Feeling led by God, he invited Pavlovic and her brother to travel to Alabama and to have the procedure done at UAB. As soon as they were granted visas, they departed for the United States. While here, it was planned that Marija would pray for visions at a local church, but that plan was blocked by unforeseen circumstances. She accompanied the Colafrancescos to their home on Bear Creek Road in Sterrett. Upon seeing the crucifix hanging in their bedroom, declared that that would be where the visions would take place. The site was interpreted as representing Mary's desire that the conversion of the United States would come through the marriage contract and the family bond. The "Bedroom of Apparitions" became a pilgrimage site at Caritas.
As word spread that Pavlovic was in Alabama and receiving new visions, thousands of pilgrims arrived at Sterrett. They gathered on a 90-acre field adjacent to Colafrancesco's house. Pavlovic joined them there under a tall pine on Thanksgiving Day and shared a message from Mary through a translator to the crowds. The field has since become a pilgrimage site managed by Caritas.
Pavlovic married an Italian man in 1993 and is now known as Marija Lunetti. She has made many subsequent return visits to Birmingham at Caritas' invitation. In 1999 20,000-30,000 pilgrims made their way to Sterrett for a week-long worship event. In December 2001, during another visit from Lunetti, former aide Pat Flynn and four other former residents of the compound filed a lawsuit claiming that families were forced to live highly regimented lives in unsanitary conditions in trailers across the road from Colafrancesco's house while their assets flowed irreversibly into the organization's coffers. That action was funded in part by Los Gatos, California anti-cult activist Phillip Kronzer, who also filed his own suit against Caritas, which then countersued.
After several years of court filings, Judge J. Michael Joiner ordered the parties into mediation, led by Art Hanes Jr and Charles Denaburg. A confidential settlement was reached in April 2005. A year later, after Colafrancesco filed another suit, Kronzer was found by to have violated the terms of the settlement by publishing derogatory material about Caritas. Joiner had Kronzer briefly jailed for contempt, and ordered him and his Phillip J. Kronzer Foundation to pay Caritas $2 million.
Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 spectators were expected for a return visit by Lunetti in 2004, during the same weekend as the Bruno's Memorial Classic at the nearby Greystone Golf and Country Club. She has claimed to have had numerous visions here and often prayed with pilgrims who traveled to Shelby County during her visits.
Caritas reported between $3 and $4 million in annual donations, over and above its revenues from book sales. The organization constructed a Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages at its headquarters in 2011 and expanded its publishing operations, including the printing of a "Patriotic Rosary" compiled by Colafrancesco. Additionally, Caritas operates a school, a sawmill, a farm, and a gift shop. The operations are staffed by volunteers, numbering about 55, who reside nearby.
Caritas erected a 38-foot-tall concrete cross atop Penitentiary Mountain. It is a replica of a similar installation on Križevac (Cross Mountain) in Međugorje and serves as the terminus of a pilgrimage path marked by stations.
- Foss, Sara (March 16, 2001) "Faith or folly?" 'Birmingham Post-Herald
- "Religious mission faced with defections, lawsuit." (March 28, 2001) Associated Press
- Reeves, Jay (December 1, 2001) "Religious group faces lawsuit labeling it a cult." Associated Press
- Wilstach, Nancy (December 28, 2004) "Mediation ordered in Caritas lawsuit." The Birmingham News
- "Confidential settlement ends Caritas suits." (April 7, 2005) Associated Press
- Garrison, Greg (August 2, 2005) "Pilgrims visit a visionary in a Shelby County field." The Birmingham News
- Wilstach, Nancy (July 13, 2006) "Phillip Kronzer: 'Cult fighter' jailed on contempt in Caritas case." The Birmingham News
- "Judge: California man must pay Alabama religious group $2 million." (December 20, 2006) Associated Press
- Garrison, Greg (July 2, 2008) "Visionary from Medjugorje returns." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (July 5, 2009) "Thousands gather for visionary in Shelby County." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (March 20, 2011) "Spreading the word of Caritas: Headquarters grows as visionary returns to Alabama." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (June 23, 2012) "Caritas of Birmingham prepares for more visions of Mary." The Birmingham News
- Garrison, Greg (July 1, 2023) "Mountaintop cross built in Shelby County as woman who claims Virgin Mary visions arrives." The Birmingham News