No one could have anticipated the future boost for Alabama tourism when six children began claiming that the Virgin Mary was appearing to them every day in their small village of Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, in 1981.
One of those visionaries, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, has been a regular visitor to Birmingham since she first came in 1988 to donate a kidney for her brother, Andrija Pavlovic, at UAB Hospital. She stayed at the home of Terry Colafrancesco, a former Shelby County landscaper who founded Caritas of Birmingham to promote the visions and lead tours to Medjugorje.
Millions of religious pilgrims visit Medjugorje, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and thousands visit Caritas of Birmingham to be in the place where Lunetti has continued to have her visions of the Virgin Mary.
Lunetti, married with four children and living in Milan, Italy, was expected to return to Alabama this weekend and stay through March 23. She has returned annually, staying at Colafrancesco's house. She makes occasional public appearances, talking to pilgrims and sometimes having her daily visions under a pine tree in a pasture next to a Virgin Mary statue. She has most of her visions privately in the house, with Caritas officials offering recaps of the message, which can often be as simple as "pray, pray, pray." Lunetti may speak to pilgrims today around 2:30 p.m., after she's rested from her trip, said Caritas spokeswoman Ruth McDonald.
Caritas has just spent more than $8 million on expansion at its main building on Shelby County 43 about six miles off U.S. 280 near Chelsea. The four-story Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages contains a massive publishing operation that produces 500,000 booklets a week sent worldwide to promote the visions. "We're getting ready for a huge evangelization of the whole world," said Colafrancesco, who writes many of the booklets under his pen name, "A Friend of Medjugorje."
Colafrancesco on Thursday pointed out a new $2.2 million binding machine churning out booklets. "We pay as we go," he said. "We don't borrow money."
Despite the recession, annual donations to Caritas have tripled from a few years ago, to between $3 million and $4 million, he said.
The apocalyptic overtones of the Medjugorje messages appeal to those frightened by a world beset by economic, political and natural disasters, Colafrancesco said. The idea that the mother of Jesus appears with guidance and blessings reassures many. "They are seeing something not of this world," he said of the visionaries. "Mary's role is to lead us to Jesus."
Since 1988, Lunetti has had more than a hundred of her visions on the Caritas property. That makes it a car-friendly version of a Medjugorje pilgrimage for Americans from Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Michigan and elsewhere.
"I went to Medjugorje; it was amazing," said Don O'Brien of Toronto, who arrived at Caritas this week on a pilgrimage. "I went there as a real skeptic. They weren't scamming for money. They were there for the apparitions."
Thousands are expected to arrive this week and fill hotels along U.S. 280, and park on Shelby County 43 on the shoulder and in ditches, creating a traffic nuisance. Pilgrims are encouraged to pray the rosary daily in the field where Lunetti has had past visions. They also browse in the Caritas bookstore.
Caritas is also a community of families with about 55 residents, who do daily prayers and chores on the farm and work in the printing operation. "This place brought joy to my life in a very supernatural way," said Alexandre Iaschine, who quit a high-tech job in Paris and moved to Caritas to help run its website. Some ex-residents of Caritas have left in anger and launched Internet attacks saying they were required to give up possessions and live in trailers while Colafrancesco lived extravagantly, exerted undue control over their lives and children and pressed them into unpaid labor.
"We don't respond to it," Colafrancesco said of critics. "We don't want people who don't want to be here. This path is hard on the flesh; it's not easy. We're in our 25th year. We've had opposition, we've been tested, we've been through the fire. People wouldn't give to it if they weren't getting a benefit."
All six Medjugorje visionaries have claimed to receive special secrets from the Virgin Mary, including promises of a supernatural sign to be left on the hill where the visions first took place.
Caritas has upgraded its website, www.mej.com, to handle world traffic. "When the secrets are released, the whole world's going to want to get in," Colafrancesco said.
Catholic Church officials, including Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, continue to advise caution about the visions. Baker forbids priests from saying Mass at Caritas. The Vatican has been monitoring and investigating the visions for three decades, and has neither condemned nor approved them. It's unlikely to approve while the visions are still occurring, for fear they could go from harmless talk of peace and prayer to heretical pronouncements.
Colafrancesco, who said he met with a sympathetic Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1997, doesn't worry about church approval.
"Our Lady does not have time to go through commissions for these messages and secrets," he said. "This is above that right now. It's for the whole world."