Thousands flock to county for week of revelations

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Thousands of people from across the globe flocked to a Shelby County field last week to be near to Marija Lunetti, a woman who for years has claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary.

Lunetti has returned occasionally to the plot of land across from the home of Terry Colafransesco, founder of Caritas of Birmingham, since she saw her first vision in the 90-acre field in 1988.

&uot;We just couldn’t miss this,&uot; Chris Jensen of Ohio said. Jensen and his family of four made the two-day drive to Caritas to enjoy what he called &uot;spiritual enrichment.&uot;

&uot;We have felt such a sense of peace since we arrived here,&uot; he said. &uot;It is truly an experience of a lifetime.&uot;

Jensen was not alone in his long distance travels. License plates on vehicles parked along County Road 43 near the Caritas field ranged from New Jersey to North Dakota and Kansas to Maine.

Birmingham resident Elizabeth Montgomery said this was her first trip to Caritas but that she just couldn’t miss seeing Marija Lunetti.

&uot;She is such an inspiration to us,&uot; Montgomery said. &uot;It’s a beautiful thing to watch when she is in the presence of Our Lady.&uot;

Lunetti is one of six girls who claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary during a 20-year period in the town of Medjugorje in the Eastern European country of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Following Lunetti’s first vision in Shelby County, Colafransesco founded Caritas of Birmingham to promote the apparitions near his home alongside the visions in Medjugorje.

This past Aug. 1, Lunetti returned to the field for more visions. The visions were regularly scheduled to occur between 6:30 and 7 p.m. central time. Lunetti said the Virgin Mary would tell her each night when she would return the following day.

Crowds of hundreds turned to thousands as the week progressed with the festivities culminating in a celebration of what Lunetti and her followers believe to be Mary’s birthday on Aug. 5, despite the Catholic Church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary’s birthday on Sept. 8.

Pilgrims spent time in the field praying and holding a candlelight vigil late into the evening, with some even spending the night.

The Caritas organization distributes books and tapes about the visions in Medjugorje and regularly sends pilgrims to the town in Eastern Europe. Since its founding, Caritas of Birmingham has reportedly become a large contributor to the Catholic faith.

The Catholic Church does not recognize the visions at Medjugorje or in Shelby County, however. The church has allowed pilgrimages to both sites.

The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham David Foley issued a statement in 1999 regarding the church’s position on the visions.

&uot;Since the visions of Medjugorje are still under investigation relative to their authenticity by the Holy See, I should not give any sign of approval nor associate with events connected with these visions,&uot; he said.

Despite Caritas’s popularity which has grown it into a multi-million dollar organization, Colafransesco has come under fire in the past few years, with some former members claiming he is misleading Caritas followers.

In a lawsuit filed in 2001, several former Caritas residents and parents of residents accused Colafrancesco and Caritas of fraud, misrepresentation, undue influence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment.

A confidential settlement was reached in the case in April of this year.

The controversy surrounding Caritas certainly did not keep followers away.

Lunetti said she received her final vision of the week last Friday at 6:48 p.m. The vision reportedly lasted for more than three minutes and Lunetti said the Virgin Mary came to her, blessed the crowd and thanked them for being faithful in celebration of her birthday.

Throughout the weeklong event, visitors were not allowed to photograph the field or the large crowds that were an attendance.

A statement on the Caritas website indicated photography was &uot;a serious violation of the spirit and reverence of the event and the grounds here.&uot;