Pinckney's Laura Flynn and family fled 'cult' in Alabama and found security here

Ann Arbor News on Caritas of Birmingham

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Runner 'rediscovers' herself in training

By Jason Deegan, Ann Arbor News Staff Reporter

The powerful feelings often hit Laura Flynn when her body is begging her to quit.

Flynn says it's during her longest training runs, when she's had plenty of time to look deep inside, that she feels alive and free. After what she and her family have been through, she doesn't take those emotions for granted.

She and her husband, Pat, and seven children moved to Pinckney four years ago after escaping what they call a controlling cult in the South.

For Flynn, training for her first marathon with the Brighton Area Road Striders has been an important aspect of a healing experience.

"Running is part of the rediscovery of who I am," she said. "It is part of my building of friendships. It gives me such a great sense of freedom that is so overwhelming. Coming from an oppressive environment, people in the (Road Striders) make such a big difference for me."

The Flynns say they are focused on moving on with their new lives, but they feel obligated to talk about their experiences to warn others. Their terrifying tale started in 1991, when the family sold everything, moving from Jacksonville, Fla., to Birmingham, Ala., to join Caritas, a group the family thought was a religious mission.

Caritas, founded in 1988 by Terry Colafrancesco, claims to be a spiritual community dedicated to promoting the apparitions of the Virgin Mary, which six youths say they witnessed in Medjugorje, Bosnia, in 1981.

Flynn said the family lived in a trailer inside a compound where roughly 50 people of Roman Catholic faith live. The Flynns stayed with Caritas for nine years, despite living under the control of its leaders.

"It became more oppressive every day," she said. "We couldn't go out without permission and it got to the point we didn't have authority over our own children. We felt we had to leave. It took us a long time to see."

She said the leaders use sleep deprivation, fasting and physical penance - like walking long distances on your knees - as tools to manipulate the followers.

"You are always drained. The leaders are very charismatic. People always think that it can't happen to me, but (these people) know how to manipulate you," she said.

The family left in the middle of the night just after Easter Sunday in 2000 with no money, no savings and no direction. A friend and a job possibility steered them toward Livingston County. The Flynns say they've found a friendly community and a home for the rest of their lives.

"We feel like we've been given a whole new start," said Pat, a one-time graphic artist who works as an administrative assistant at Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church of Hamburg. "Things had reached almost real despair, but God has been good to us (in Michigan)."

The family filed a lawsuit with several other people against Caritas in 2001, claiming the group drains members of their money, but the case is still working its way through the Alabama legal system.

Flynn says she runs to help her heal. When she isn't taking care of the couple's seven children - Tierney, 16; Lily, 14, Anna, 13; Michael, 10; Mary Grace, 8; Daniel, 5; and Catherine, 3 - or homeschooling them in a makeshift classroom in their garage, she's training for her marathon.

She ran a two-person relay in the Detroit Free Press-Flagstar Bank Marathon last year and will tackle the entire 26.2 miles herself this year, on Oct. 24.

"This is a great personal triumph. She needs this for herself," Pat Flynn said. "She is doing really well. It's a great part of her healing."

Whenever her legs start to wobble and ache, Laura looks into her past to keep forging ahead.

"I get spurred on by the thought, 'I'm going forward,"' she said. "I will not give up. If I have to crawl, I will finish this marathon."


For God to live in your hearts, you must love.