Looking for a miracle

Birmingham Post-Herald on Caritas of Birmingham

Other languages: English, Italiano

By Sara Foss, Birmingham Post-Herald

In 1986, a man with a great enthusiasm for Medjugorje began visiting Jack Sacco in his office at the Eternal Word Television Network, a Roman Catholic television network based in Irondale.

At that time, Sacco was organizing one of the first trips from Alabama to Medjugorje, a rural village in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six youths had reported receiving messages from the Virgin Mary in 1981.

"I convinced two friends to go with me," said Sacco, a Birmingham native who now runs Michelangelo Films, a film production company based in Marina del Rey, Calif. "Before we left, this guy Terry is showing up in my office every day, all enthusiastic. He would talk about Medjugorje."

Sacco was referring to Terry Colafrancesco, then a landscaper who ran his business out of his home in Sterrett in Shelby County.

Today Colafrancesco is the president and founder of Caritas of Birmingham, a religious organization in Sterrett dedicated to promoting devotion to the visions of Medjugorje.

Incorporated in 1987, Caritas distributes information about Medjugorje through newsletters and books. The organization also sponsors pilgrimages to Medjugorje.

Former residents of Caritas paint Colafrancesco as a domineering, controlling figure, and a lawsuit recently filed in California accuses him of using Caritas to enrich himself. Supporters, however, describe him as a "brilliant" spiritual leader whose goal is to serve the Virgin Mary.

The Birmingham Post-Herald was unable to reach Colafrancesco for comment after repeated attempts.

A thin man in his late 40s with dark, wiry hair, Colafrancesco was raised Roman Catholic in western Birmingham. He graduated from John Carroll High School, a private Catholic school in Birmingham.

Colafrancesco and his wife, Annette, have six children. The oldest, Kyle, is in his 20s. All of the children except Kyle, who recently left the community, live and work at Caritas.

Part of that property includes a two-story home on Bear Creek Road to which the Colafrancescos first moved about 20 years ago.

The younger Colafrancesco children attend the home school facility located on the Caritas property, according to Shelby County records.

Colafrancesco's wife was raised Primitive Baptist, but now participates in community life at Caritas. In a 1998 Associated Press story, she talked about how she'd had to deal with questions about Caritas from her family. "They think we're a little touched," she said in the article.

As early as 1986, Colafrancesco was saying he wanted to establish one of the largest Medjugorje-related organizations in the world, Sacco said.

Soon after Sacco met Colafrancesco, he said, Colafrancesco went on a pilgrimage that took him to Rome and Medjugorje. When he returned, he told Sacco he wanted to found an organization that would promote Medjugorje.

The two men attended a conference in Massachusetts for people who were interested in starting U.S.-based Medjugorje groups, Sacco said.

Sacco said he was surprised, however, when he found out in 1987 that Colafrancesco had incorporated a new organization called Caritas of Birmingham.

The name Caritas — which means love in Latin — was recommended by a priest, Sacco said.

"One day, Terry came by my office and said he went ahead and incorporated Caritas and made himself president," Sacco said. "I was in shock."

After that, Sacco said, Colafrancesco's attitude was, "Well, I'm the president, and I choose not to listen to your advice."

The two continued to discuss Medjugorje together, despite increasing differences of opinion. Sacco said that one day, while he and Colafrancesco were walking on the 90-acre field that bordered Colafrancesco's property, Colafrancesco told him he planned to bring one of the Medjugorje seers to the field.

"He said, 'This is not my field, but one day I'm going to get Marija (Pavlovic Lunetti, a visionary) to come here and have an apparition.' That was a full two years before Marija came here," Sacco said.

Sacco said he and other men who were interested in Medjugorje tried to work with Colafrancesco, but eventually tired of his ambitions. "Around 1989 or 1990, I just quit dealing with him," Sacco said.

In 1988, one of the visionaries, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, came to Birmingham to donate a kidney to her brother, Andrija, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. At the time, Lunetti Pavlovic was 23 and her brother, who had been diagnosed with kidney failure, was 31.

During her stay in Alabama, Lunetti lived in Colafrancesco's home. On Thanksgiving Day, thousands of religious pilgrims who journeyed to Sterrett were on hand when she said she had an apparition in the 90-acre field.

Today Lunetti lives in Italy with her husband, Paolo.

In 1989, Colafrancesco paid $4,000 an acre for the field. A newspaper report at the time indicated that Colafrancesco had taken an option on the land long before Lunetti said she would come to Alabama.

"It's such a fantastic thing to see people living together and in union with God, and it's a beautiful life," Colafrancesco was quoted then. "Everybody who goes to Medjugorje says, 'We would love living that same way.' "

It also was reported that "because of the time he spends caring for Miss Pavlovic and directing Caritas, Colafrancesco has suspended the operation of his business, Century Landscaping."

Some people credit Colafrancesco with single-handedly creating an organization that has enriched the spiritual lives of its many visitors.

"I've always found in my dealings with (Colafrancesco) that he had the best interests of the organization at heart," said Joseph Ritchey, an attorney with Sirote & Permutt who has represented Caritas for 10 years. "As for Caritas, I feel like he's done a good job. It's his life work."

"I think (Colafrancesco) has a real good heart for wanting to be obedient to the church and obedient to the blessed mother," said Ellen Edmunds, a north Shelby County resident who has visited Caritas about 100 times.

Other acquaintances described Colafrancesco as a charismatic, determined leader with a gift for speaking and a knack for fund-raising.

"He'd say things that were absolutely brilliant," said Steve Littiken, 44, who lived at Caritas from 1992 to 2000. "That's why you'd hang around. You'd hear things that blew you away. ... I thought there was a lot of wisdom there. I think he sincerely wanted to live a Christian life."

Laura Flynn, 37, who lived at Caritas from 1991 to 2000, agreed.

"Terry and I always had a love-hate relationship," she said. "He would inspire me. He would give a talk to a busload of pilgrims in the field, and when he talked, he would inspire me. There were times when I'd say to myself, 'I'm so privileged to live here with this saint.' "

But now Littiken, Flynn and others have questions about Colafrancesco's motives and leadership.

"Terry has a way of saying things that make you feel like he knows something about you," said Carol Conrique, who volunteered at Caritas in the early 1990s. Three of Conrique's siblings now live at Caritas, but she said they will not return her phone calls.

Once, Conrique said, she was returning from praying the rosary in the field when Colafranesco approached her and told her she could be pure again.

"That's his way of getting into your mind," she said. "He'll come up and act like he knows something about you."

In 1999, Colafrancesco incorporated another organization, called the Community of Caritas.

The goal of the organization, according to documents filed in Shelby County Probate Court, is to promote the Christian faith as a community by supporting the mission of Caritas of Birmingham and encouraging families, single men and single women to live Christian lives.

People who once lived at Caritas and nearby residents said one of Colafrancesco's goals has always been to establish a Catholic town.

"His ultimate goal was to create a city or a village," said Pat Flynn, 41, who lived at Caritas of Birmingham from 1991 to 2000.

Before Caritas began, things were different, said the Luckys and Baldwins, two families whose hand-built homes border Caritas property.

Neighbors would join each other for block parties and exchange Christmas and birthday presents. Colafrancesco even supplied a hayride for some of the festivities, they said.

But during Lunetti's 1988 visit, the Colafrancescos changed, said Gwen Baldwin, 46.

"Terry and Annette immediately turned their back on us," she said. "People were leaving trash on the driveway and going to the bathroom on the property."

Baldwin, who has lived on Bear Creek Road for about 23 years, said she could remember Colafrancesco talking about his desire to own the 90-acre field next to his home.

"I can remember the day when Terry said, 'One day I will own that field,' " she said. "He always wanted to own that land."

"He came up to me and said he'd own the whole valley, from 280 to Vandiver," said Bob Lucky, a neighbor. At one point, he said, a woman sent by Caritas visited and offered to buy his property.

About six years ago, the Baldwins grew so tired of living next to Caritas they put their homes up for sale. They accuse residents of Caritas of cutting down trees on their property and moving their property lines. The couple even keeps a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings about Caritas and photographs documenting various infractions. One picture, they said, showed a fire built on Caritas in 1999 that violated a no-burn order.

One family who lives on Shelby County 43 moved to Sterrett from Hoover in the early 1990s in order to be closer to Caritas.

"(Colafrancesco) was going to have a lot more people move out here," said Barbara Whitworth, whose family first started visiting the area during Lunetti's 1988 visit.

"It was going to be more like a neighborhood with Catholics. I think he intended to sell plots of land here."

For a while, Whitworth said, she volunteered at Caritas but stopped when she started home-schooling her children. She didn't have time to work at Caritas, she said.

"They did everything as a community, and you had to follow their rules," she said.

Other Sterrett residents who have done business with Colafrancesco said he has been fair.

"There's no problem whatsoever here," said Billy Joe Pickett, who sold Colafrancesco a trailer earlier this year. "He's a good boy. ... I've never known him to be a problem."

Richard Sanders, an antique furniture restorer, agreed. He said he built Colafrancesco a wooden top for a stone container about 3 or 4 feet tall. The top contained a door so people could drop offerings into the container, he said.

"He wanted it to look real old," Sanders said.

"He's straight up with me on business. I was paid on time. I have no problem with him as a person," said Sanders, who said he doesn't believe the visions of Medjugorje are legitimate.

"We discussed our differences and shook hands, and he went away. He seems to be a decent sort. I think I could safely turn my back on him."

Although he declined to say why he had left Caritas or what he was doing, Kyle Colafrancesco defended his father when contacted in the Atlanta area, describing criticism of Caritas' founder as "just loud exaggerated talk."

Caritas receives letters and testimonies from people who have been touched by the community's work every day, Kyle Colafrancesco said.

"I have no less faith in my dad or what he's doing," he said. "I'm not going to support anyone else's complaints."

Using the pen name "A Friend of Medjugorje," Colafrancesco writes much of what is published at Caritas.

In 1998, he told The Associated Press that one of his books, "Words from Heaven," had made nearly $1 million. "It all goes to the mission," he was quoted as saying.

Another book by Colafrancesco, "How to Change Your Husband," devotes more than 200 pages to describing the role men and women should play in rearing children.

Chapter titles include "Women who submit to their husbands are not doormats (but) reflections of Mary," "God hates divorce," and "The most sacred part of the home."

In one chapter, titled, "But my husband is not as smart as me about things," Colafrancesco writes, "OK, if obedience is more important than being right, what if a husband wants to take their life's savings to invest and the wife's wisdom tells her it will be a mistake, and she knows she is right? She must be obedient, even if because of his decision they lost their home, cars, everything. The family order will be intact. That is far better fruit than rebelling against the husband bringing rebellion into the family, thereby killing it in the war that could result."

Acquaintances also said Colafrancesco could be likable.

"He was a very likable person," Sacco said.

"He was just very pushy about Medjugorje."

Another former resident, Mike O'Neill, 62, agreed.

"When you drive at night with your headlights on, you attract deer. Terry uses the light of Medjugorje to attract people."

 

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