Millie Francis, 85, is a devout Catholic and makes no apologies for her relationship with God and the Virgin Mary. About 16 years ago, she was having her sixth stent placed into her heart and while in recovery, she slipped away. Francis was clinically dead for more than 15 minutes.
Her family and Catholic priest at the time, surrounding her hospital bed, thought she had passed, but when she awoke, it was called a miracle that she not only returned to the living, but also didn’t suffer any brain damage from the long period without oxygen.
“I’m blessed,’ Francis said. “At first I was asking my son why am I back here? I was with St. Jude. I didn’t want to come back. But I feel blessed to know I have more to do.”
Francis recently painted an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe — one of Mary’s many Catholic titles — on a piece of plywood on the front of her mobile home in the Bradenton Tropical Palms trailer park. The property manager for Vanguard Property Management out of Tampa, Janet Nowakowski, is demanding it be removed.
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The painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, is on the wood where her front window used to be. Francis wanted the window removed because the park’s security would shine their flashlights into the window at night, and she used to have a neighbor who liked to peek in to see what she was doing.
So in April, she informed the park that she wanted to remove the window and received permission to do so.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in that space,” Francis said. “I was at church during Mass just before communion. To be honest, I wasn’t concentrating much on Mass because I was preoccupied with what am I going to do with this board? I said, ‘Please dear Lord, help me decide on what I want to do.’ I don’t want to say I had a vision or anything like that, but felt enlightened and received the inspiration from our Lady of Guadalupe to paint her image. So I promised that I would.”
Other residents have a variety of things in their front yards from dolphins to angels, but for some reason management decided Francis’ painting had to come down.
Nowakowski first said Francis didn’t get permission through the park’s architectural review committee, but she did get permission to remove the window. Nowakowski then said Francis was approved but was given until Oct. 31 to complete the window replacement. Nowakowski said the project wasn’t completed on time and therefore, according to park rules, Francis must resubmit her project to the committee for approval or remove the painting.
Francis said the window replacement was done on time, but the painting was only recently completed. So for her, it’s not about the window removal, it’s about her decision to paint the Virgin Mary and believes she’s being discriminated against.
Francis said she wouldn’t have an issue if one of her neighbors painted a Buddha on their front window and said other neighbors have a Mickey Mouse or gecko in their front yards.
“There’s all kinds of stuff out there, but this is because I’m Catholic and it’s wrong,” she said. “With all the things going on in the world, I would think there would be more important things to worry about than this.”
Francis believes she was led to paint the image because of all of the hate in the world and the various religious persecutions.
“Maybe it will help people pray,” she said. “I don’t know, but I hope it will. I put it up there to encourage people to say a Hail Mary everyday because Lord almighty we need prayers in this world right now. There is so much evil going on out there.”
Francis said management told her they will come and remove the painting if she does not, and has given her a matter of days to get it done.
“Janet was out writing up other people that day and I was out here putting up some wrought iron and she told me the painting had to come down,” Francis said. “I told her the painting was blessed by my church and she told me she doesn’t care. She said they can come onto my property and physically remove it themselves if they want to.”
That didn’t go over well with the feisty 85-year-old.
“They’ll have to kill me first,” Francis said. “You’re not going to tell this old lady what to do. This is America. As long as I have two arms and two legs, I’m going to do it.”
Nowakowski denies that Francis was told the painting would be removed by staff.
“Absolutely not,” Nowakowski said. “That’s not the case.”
Francis said the majority of her neighbors don’t have an issue with the painting save one she has had a problem with ever since that neighbor told management about a small garden she had in the backyard. Francis said the neighbor had no problem accepting tomatoes from her, but one day decided to tell on her.
The garden is still there and the painting isn’t going anywhere either, she said.
“Since it’s been blessed, I think it would be a crime to tear it down,” she said. “To destroy her that way would be terribly wrong.”
Nowakowski said “numerous” people have complained about the painting for various reasons.
Nowakowski said it’s not even her decision about the painting, and that it will be up to the architectural committee to decide its fate. If she’s told it has to go and refuses, Nowakowski said she will follow the proper legal channels at that point.
“That’s where we stand,” Nowakowski said. “She exceeded the time she was given to complete it and it has to go back before the committee. She has not submitted that request.”
Francis said she will stand her ground and won’t be seeking anymore permission.
“I don’t bother anybody and I don’t want anyone bothering me,” she said. “I got permission from them, but I’m not asking for anymore permission. This is America, I’m 85 and will do what I want with my own property.”