Questions push families away

Birmingham Post-Herald on Caritas of Birmingham

Other languages: English, Italiano

By Sara Foss, Birmingham Post-Herald

When the Flynn and the Littiken families moved to Caritas of Birmingham, they did it for their children.

The idea of a wholesome farming community, where devout Roman Catholics worshipped together and worked side by side, appealed to them.

"I wanted to live a more simple life," said Steve Littiken, who was a plumbing contractor in Orlando, Fla., when he and his wife, Anna Littiken, decided to move to rural Shelby County in 1992.

"I moved there for my kids," said Littiken, 44, a father of seven children ranging in age from 3 months to 18 years, "and I left for my kids."

Like the Littikens, Pat and Laura Flynn also wanted to raise their children in a spiritual environment. They have seven children, ranging in age from 6 months to 13 years.

The two families were friends in Florida before they moved to Caritas, a religious community located on Shelby County 43 in Sterrett. The Flynns were living in Jacksonville, and met the Littikens while attending anti-abortion rallies and gatherings.

During 1999 and 2000, the Littikens, Flynns and other longtime residents of Caritas left the community.

Among their complaints were long work hours, poor schooling and supervision of children, and an environment where virtually every detail, from who leaves the property to the food eaten by the community, is controlled by Terry Colafrancesco, founder and president of Caritas of Birmingham.

They also have questions about how the finances of the community were managed.

Neither Colafrancesco nor current residents of Caritas responded to requests for interviews. Characterizing any negative comments about Caritas as "slander," one longtime resident, Ruth McDonald, said a response would not be Christian.

Founded by Colafrancesco in 1987, Caritas distributes information about Medjugorje, a rural village in the eastern European country of Bosnia-Herzegovina where six youths said the Virgin Mary appeared to them in 1981 with messages of peace and love.

In December 1999, 20,000 to 30,000 pilgrims flocked to Caritas to pray with Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, one of the six Bosnian seers who reported visions of Mary at the Caritas site. Lunetti's Caritas visit was a high point for the community, which was flooded with letters and donations in the weeks following the event.

But the departure of about 11 adults and 18 children shows that not all is right with Caritas, some former residents said. They said they are convinced the community has brainwashed residents, about 40 of whom remain, into accepting unhappiness as a sacrifice for the Lord.

"It's not a sacrifice if there's no choice," said Mike O'Neill, 62, who lived at Caritas from 1991 to 1999.

"None of us seemed to realize what was going on," Littiken said. "These are very educated people, people who were very sincere about what they were doing. We didn't even realize we were under this control. We even joked about it. We said we had all the qualities of a cult."

Sources who are close to the community said the residents have all chosen to live there. One woman, a 57-year-old Birmingham resident who has visited Caritas more than 20 times, said, "They're very, very prayerful people. I don't think it's something they're forced to do. I think it's something they want to do." The woman asked that her name not be printed.

Although all of the people who have left Caritas said they were drawn to the community by its promise of spiritual fulfillment, they said they often felt confused, exhausted and fearful while they were there.

They thought about leaving earlier, they said, but were afraid departure would lead to punishment from God.

"Somehow I got it in my head that (Caritas) was a mission from God, and if I didn't carry out the mission God would strike me down," Littiken said. "But I got to the point where I didn't care anymore. I'd take the chance."

Previous articles about Caritas suggest the desire for a religious life is what draws people to the community and keeps them there.

In the beginning, Colafrancesco's intentions seemed pure and decent, former Caritas residents said.

"There were a lot of good things," Littiken said. "We did see conversions."

The people who moved to Caritas believed they were responding to a call from God to teach the world about what was happening in Medjugorje.

"I felt called to be there and spread the messages of Medjugorje," Littiken said. "I don't know how to explain it. We lived there and accepted things."

Sources close to Caritas agreed community life is not easy. One person suggested perhaps the Flynns and Littikens are trying to rationalize moving their children to Caritas by blaming the difficulties they experienced there not on a bad decision they made, but on Colafrancesco.

Kyle Colafrancesco, Terry Colafrancesco's oldest son, said complaints about Caritas are not indicative of a wider problem.

"Just because Steve or Pat doesn't like it at Caritas, that's a personal problem," he said when contacted in Georgia.

Ellen Edmunds, a resident of north Shelby County who has visited Caritas about 100 times, agreed.

"I think community life is probably very difficult," she said. "When you make a decision to enter into community life, this whole question of 'I'm in charge' goes out the door. You're no longer going to be in control of your decisions. You're committed to doing what the community does."

Rev. Michael McMahon, a priest at Our Lady of the Valley in Pelham, said residents of Caritas occasionally attend Mass at his parish.

"I talk to them," he said. "They're good people."

Eventually, the atmosphere at Caritas became too oppressive, said the Littikens, the Flynns, O'Neill and other sources.

On one occasion, the Flynns and the Littikens said, the married couples were told to abstain from sex for the 40 days leading up to a visit from Lunetti.

"It was supposed to be a way to prepare ourselves, a way to be pure," said Pat Flynn, 41. "Human sexuality is a form of expression. There isn't a type of expression at Caritas that Terry didn't have control of."

"We tried to do everything that (Terry) asked," said Anna Littiken, 40, Steve Littiken's wife. "Everyone wanted to do what was right."

Residents of Caritas live in mobile homes located on the property.

When they left Caritas, the Flynns and the Littikens said, they had little money and no homes to return to.

The Flynns had sold their home in Jacksonville, Fla., to move to Caritas. They had purchased a mobile home for about $18,000 to live in at Caritas, and lived off the rest of their savings until that money ran out, said Pat Flynn, who left a job doing advertising and public relations for a swimming pool manufacturer to move to Caritas.

When the Littikens arrived at Caritas, they had about $9,600, which was used to purchase vehicles for the community, Steve Littiken said.

Flynn said he received a $302 salary every week while at Caritas, and Littiken said his salary was a little more, about $400.

The two families were among the first people to move to Caritas.

A retired FBI agent who also owns a small plane, O'Neill first learned of Caritas through the organization's newsletter and began doing errands for the community in 1990 using his airplane. In 1991 he sold his home in Cincinnati, purchased a mobile home and moved to Sterrett. He used the rest of his money to pay off the debt on his airplane, which he said is worth about $116,000.

In 1998, O'Neill moved into a mobile home in Chelsea with his wife, Jacquie O'Neill, 59. Although his frustration with Caritas had been growing for several years, O'Neill said he continued to work at the community because he believed teaching people about Medjugorje was important.

"I still saw the good in the mission there, and I saw (Terry) steadily destroying it." he said.

Jacquie O'Neill moved to Caritas shortly after her husband did, but she was so unhappy there she decided to leave the community after 10 months.

She said she quickly tired of living in a trailer, while Colafrancesco and his family continued to live in a two-story house across the street from the main compound at Caritas.

"(Terry) would say 'Abandon, abandon,' but he still lived in his house," she said.

Leaving Caritas was difficult, Jacquie O'Neill said.

"It was a very hard thing for me to do, and I kept hoping Mike would follow me," she said.

But Mike O'Neill didn't follow his wife for another six years, and although the two are still married, they said the separation was not easy.

Now O'Neill flies cargo for Air Carriers Inc., a company based at the Bessemer airport. Someday, he said, he would like to lead pilgrimages to Medjugorje.

The O'Neills have five children, ranging in age from 23 to 32. Their youngest daughter, Kiera, still lives at Caritas, but the O'Neills said she does not return their phone calls.

Several people who have left Caritas said the community's mission began to change around 1995. Instead of spending most of their time educating people about Medjugorje, the community began to devote most of its time to farming and building new facilities for farm equipment and other purposes.

"At first, 95 percent of our energy was spent on the mission," O'Neill said. "Then, it got to be that 95 percent of our energy was spent on the farm and self-preservation."

Another gradual change, former residents said, was in the level of personal freedom adults enjoyed.

"In the beginning, there was a freedom there," Laura Flynn said. "Pat and I could go out to eat. We could go to the movies."

For the women, who described being good wives and mothers as their top priorities, the increasing workload began to detract from family life, they said.

Mothers, they said, were often too busy to watch younger children, and children as young as 7, 8 and 9 would serve as baby sitters for long stretches of time.

"There were adults around, but the kids were not being taken care of properly," Laura Flynn said.

"It didn't seem considerate of the home life if the mission came first," Anna Littiken said. "We did our best. It was a stressful way of life. Our mindset was that we wanted to do it for Our Lady."

Problems also arose with Heritage Academy, a local organization that oversees people who homeschool their children. The academy decided not to re-enroll the Caritas children for the 2000-01 school year.

Although Heritage's decision was influenced by complaints about the schooling at Caritas from parents who had left the community, the organization had concerns about Caritas before those complaints were voiced, said Gilbert Douglas, administrator of Heritage Academy.

Heritage Academy is a ministry of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.

"We were a little bit uncomfortable before that," Douglas said. "We have to feel comfortable (with our home schoolers)."

Douglas said he first became concerned about Caritas after reading a newspaper article that referred to the "school" at Caritas. At the time, Douglas said he believed the parents were home-schooling their own children, rather than sending them to some kind of group school.

"At that time I called Terry and said, 'I have not authorized you to have a school. I'm authorizing parents to teach their children.' We got the feeling parents had less and less authority over their children," Douglas said.

Another problem was that Caritas was not supplying the achievement tests required by Heritage Academy, Douglas said.

"That was another little difficulty," he said. "We didn't get the results we needed. We gave them a little slack, but then slack runs out."

One reason former residents said they stayed at Caritas for so long was their devotion to the organization's mission and their desire to live with Catholics who felt similarly. Another reason was they were afraid to leave.

Often, they said, Colafrancesco spoke of the "coming chastisements," a time when the world would be chastised by God for its sinfulness.

Although "there would be mass chaos, we (Caritas) would be OK," Pat Flynn said.

Finally, despite their fears of what would happen to them if they left Caritas, the Flynns and the Littikens decided they had had enough and left the community in April 2000.

Another resident, 27-year-old Toby O'Byrnes, also left the community at this time. He declined to comment.

In a letter Pat Flynn received in August, Colafrancesco denied many of Flynn's accusations and suggested the people who left caused their unhappiness.

Of the departure of the Flynns and the Littikens, Colafrancesco wrote, "We shed the tears, we mourned from our hearts the loss, and we moved on. The night you left, we gathered in the auditorium and opened the door to anyone else who felt perhaps the community was not for them, or to speak if they had misgivings about how things were being done by me or the community. All, on their own, recommitted, and all attested that they could not comprehend your position.

"Pat, you, as well as others, are painting a picture that you were victims and I the culprit," the seven-page letter continues. "I maintain, however, that you lost the grace to remain here. Your actions and others who left, aside from the innocent ones, created an oppressive, choking atmosphere for yourselves. In other words, you kept trying to see the speck in my eye without seeing the plank in yours."

After leaving Caritas, the Flynns and the Littikens moved to Florida. After a few months, the Flynns moved to Michigan.

Pat Flynn is working as an administrative assistant in a Catholic church and doing freelance graphic design. Both Laura Flynn and Anna Littiken are home-schooling their children.

Both families asked that the towns where they live not be identified in this article.

The adjustment has been difficult, but the Catholic church and good priests have helped a lot, former residents said.

"The church has been a lifesaver through it all," Pat Flynn said.

"It's tight, but we're making it. God's been really good."

 

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