By Verna Gates
STERRETT, Alabama (Reuters) - A visit from a Croatian woman who says she sees the Virgin Mary on a daily basis drew thousands of people to a small Alabama town this week, many of them traveling long distances to be near the self-proclaimed visionary.
Despite skepticism of prominent Catholics, the faithful said they trekked to Sterrett, about 30 minutes south of Birmingham, with hopes of hearing a message from the mother of Jesus, witnessing miracles and receiving direction about how to follow their faith.
"I am here to get our Lady's graces," said Steve Schoenecker, 56, who came from Minnesota.
The woman at the center of the gathering, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, said she saw the apparition or appearance of Mary in 1981 at age 16 with a group of five other youth in Medjugorje, then part of Yugoslavia.
That is where she later met Terry Colafrancesco, a Catholic and former landscape excavator from Alabama who runs Caritas of Birmingham, a Christian non-profit dedicated to spreading news about the visions of Our Lady of Medjugorje.
In 1988, Colafrancesco invited Lunetti to stay on his family farm after he helped arrange her kidney donation to her ailing brother at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.
Lunetti, now 47, has returned 11 times since and has attracted a large following. Word of her visits spreads through Colafrancesco's printing enterprise outreach, including the 120,000 people who receive his monthly newsletter, he said.
"She is coming to bring the scriptures alive, to bring about the conversion of our country to Christ," said Colafrancesco, whose organization is not connected to the Catholic church or charity groups with the Caritas name.
"There is no question, everything the Virgin Mary is about is warning us about the second coming. She is the queen of peace and her prayers for us are profound," he said.
Not everyone buys into his beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church acknowledges historic appearances of Mary in Guadalupe, Mexico; Lourdes, France; and Fatima, Portugal - all of which were studied and authenticated by local bishops.
But the church continues to investigate the status of the apparitions in Medjugorje, according to Father Giles Conwill, chaplain at Xavier University of Louisiana and a former history professor.
Some Catholic leaders have expressed skepticism of the phenomenon there. "We, as Catholics, are not obliged to believe private revelations," said Conwill.
DEDICATED FOLLOWERS, DETRACTORS
That has not stopped 60 volunteers at Caritas of Birmingham from working year-round to organize pilgrimages to Medjugorje in Croatia and run an extensive religious printing operation.
Colafrancesco has built a complex on his 130-acre (52.6-hectare) property that includes a new $8 million printing press and office building, as well as a chapel, gift shop and mobile homes for the community members.
Some detractors describe the group as a cult, saying it fosters isolation, family estrangement and control. A lawsuit filed by former residents and families of residents accused Colafrancesco of enticing devout Catholics to the complex, draining their assets and keeping them from their loved ones. The suit was settled privately.
A self-proclaimed "cult fighter" in California lost his bid to shut Caritas of Birmingham down and was ordered to pay the organization more than $2 million in 2006 for his continued pursuit and criticism of it, according to court records.
Colafrancesco brushes off the criticism. "A cult is a belief in something," he said.
A 2009 tax filing listed nearly $6 million in assets and nearly $4 million in income for the organization, which Colafrancesco says runs on many small donations.
There was no charge this week for those who came to be near Lunetti. Colafrancesco told local media that the five-day visit drew about 15,000 to 18,000 people by the time it ended on Thursday.
Many of the visitors said they believed Mary would use her traditional role in the Catholic Church of interceding on their behalf to connect them to Jesus.
Schoenecker, making his third visit, said he witnessed miracles at the site, including a man stricken by polio who threw off his leg braces and walked as he cried with joy. During another apparition, Schoenecker said his rosary chain turned gold.
Gina Hall, 49, of Washington, D.C., said she sold her condo and most of her possessions to drive to Birmingham and begin a life of discipleship.
"I expect to build my faith and not be afraid. While praying to Mary, I have experienced profound miracles," said Hall, a retired government worker.
On Monday, the second day of Lunetti's visit, she announced the Virgin had told her she would appear at 6:40 p.m. As about 2,500 people gathered to pray in a field decorated with a statue of Mary, a smaller group waited in Colafrancesco's bedroom for the vision.
The faithful prayed the rosary as they kneeled around the bed, which was covered with roses and prayer requests. Lunetti entered the room and began to pray aloud in Croatian. Then she fell silent, still moving her lips and looking upward.
Some witnesses began to sob and wail as they awaited what they believed to be a message from the mother of Jesus.
"She blesses you all," Lunetti announced in English.
Those gathered outside said the blessing held deep meaning for them. Eric Dominguez, a 30-year-old pig farmer from Colorado, said he has looked to Mary as his mother since his own mother died.
"I call on her and she has never let me down," Dominguez said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Greg McCune and Vicki Allen)