Lawyers threaten to take 85-year-old woman to court over painting of the Virgin Mary

One week after 85-year-old Millie Francis publicly declared, “They’ll have to kill me first,” before allowing a painting of the Virgin Mary to be removed from her mobile home, attorneys representing the Bradenton Tropical Palms mobile home park sent a letter threatening to sue.

Francis received notification from the park’s law firm on Nov. 9 that she had 30 days to remove the painting or she would face legal action. The deadline is days away but “It’s not going anywhere,” Francis said on Tuesday.

The painting is on a piece of plywood where her front window used to be. Francis had the window removed in April, with permission from the park, after having issues of security personnel shining flashlights into her home late at night. But when she had the painting done, property manager Janet Nowakowski told her it had to be removed.

Nowakowski said she didn’t have an issue with the content of the painting. She said Francis simply did not follow proper protocol in getting the painting approved by the park’s architectural review committee and that she failed to meet a deadline to have the window replaced.

Documents indicate that Francis did have permission from the committee to replace the window, and she was inspired to have the painting done while at church at the last minute. Francis said she not only completed the project on time, but also there is nothing in the park rules regarding decorating after the fact.

Nowakowski said Francis needed to resubmit the entire project through the committee, but Francis refused, believing it had become a personal issue between her and management and that she is being discriminated against because of her Catholic faith.

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The stress is taking a toll.

“I’m feeling weak,” Francis said. “This is bothering me so much, it’s making me ill that they are still determined to tear it down. I don’t know anything about the legal end of this. I contacted legal aid and they said they can’t do anything for me even though I got a letter from a retired judge suggesting I contact them.”

Francis is currently trying to contact the Knights of Columbus at the suggestion of her priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, who has blessed the painting.

“If I have to go to court, then I have to go,” Francis said. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t take this anymore but I can’t see it coming down. It’s not hurting anyone. They don’t have to look at it if they don’t like it so I don’t understand why they are against me, but it’s going to stay.”

Francis said this is a time of year that she spends a lot of time decorating for Christmas, but the toll on her energy and worrying about being sued is draining her. She won’t be deterred, however.

“I”m going to put my Christmas decorations up and I’m going to put a laser light right on her,” Francis said. “If they don’t like it, too bad. I don’t want her destroyed and I’m not going to let it happen. I never knew people could be like this. In Ohio we all stuck together and did things for each other. I’m not going to get on my knees and beg to keep it and that’s what they want.”

Support for Francis poured in when she first told her story in early November. The Bradenton Herald received several emails questioning why anyone would bother an elderly woman over her religious beliefs. Another reader, Jackie Freeman, penned a letter to the editor.

Freeman, a Tropical Palms resident, said the park is setting a dangerous precedent given the number or residents who have a variety of religious or mythical figures in their yards such as angels and fairies. Freeman said the park’s lack of specific restrictions and taking legal action against Francis, would effectively create a “Religious-free environment,” banning everything up to and including a sign reading, “Smile, God loves you.”

“Without covenant restrictions against the display of religious symbols, an owner should be permitted to freely erect a religious display on their living unit,” Freeman wrote.

As for Francis, “I just don’t know anything about this legal stuff. They say I’ll have to pay their attorney fees if they prevail in court. I can’t afford this. I need help and I don’t know what will happen to me, but I do know I’m not taking it down.”