Thousands gather at religious shrine

At 8 a.m. Thursday, people began to gather around the shrine at Caritas of Birmingham. As they kneeled to pray, a statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by flowers and hand-written prayer requests, gazed down upon them from atop a heap of rocks.

The believers came to this field in tiny Sterrett because of Marija Lunetti from Medjugorje of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lunetti says that she began seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary when she was a teenager and these visions still appear to her daily. Caritas of Birmingham is an organization devoted to spreading the messages that the Virgin Mary supposedly gave in Medjugorje. This week is considered a prayer retreat for Caritas and for travelers.

Thousands of pilgrims traveled from all over the United States to Shelby County this week to see Lunetti and hear her messages. The hundreds of cars lining the roadside of Highway 43 had tags from such states as Illinois, Arizona, Vermont and Florida.

Lucille Flores, a short, brown-eyed woman from Kingston, Texas, said she traveled 861 miles to join the congregants because she might never be able to go on such a trip again.

“I’ve got a twin sister that’s been sick for a long time, both physically and mentally,” Flores said. “I wanted to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to help her.”

Flores said she has seen the relief that comes from faith.

“When my brother went to Vietnam, my mother prayed to the Virgin Mary every day,” she said. “The Virgin showed her love to everybody. She has appeared to many people. Simple people.”

In 1988, Lunetti came to Birmingham to donate a kidney to an older brother. She stayed with the family of Terry Colafrancesco, who is the leader of Caritas. During that time, she told the family that she continued to have visions while here.

Since then, she has been back repeatedly, each time professing to see the Virgin and passing on messages.

Frank Savage, Director of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Birmingham, said the church has no official position on Lunetti’s visions.

“They are still under study,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process that’s done in Rome.”

Savage said the question of whether or not to believe in the visions is a personal choice each Catholic has to make.

“Part of our church is private devotion. The Blessed Mother is very much revered in our church, and in all Christian churches, as being the mother of God. Whether or not she appears to an individual is a matter of personal piety,” he said. “That’s not something a Catholic has to believe.”

Caritas has no connection with the Diocese of Birmingham, Savage said.

Even though the visions can’t be proved, for the believers, it’s a matter of faith.

“You’ve got to have faith,” said Flores. “If you’ve got God in you, that’s what matters. The spirits of Mary and God and Jesus Christ are everywhere.”