A legal battle is brewing over a portrait of the Virgin Mary an 85-year-old devout Catholic woman had commissioned to replace a window on her Bradenton mobile home.
Attorneys representing Bradenton Tropical Palms’ board of directors have filed paperwork announcing that Millie Francis “has been sued in this proceeding,” with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes.
The suit included a demand for arbitration, a process where an arbitrator’s ruling would be legally binding in order to keep it out of an actual courtroom.
The issue with Francis went public in early November when property management demanded she remove the painting, which depicts Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Francis declaring, “They’ll have to kill me first.”
One week later, attorneys representing the mobile home park threatened a lawsuit if she didn’t take the painting down within 30 days. Francis did not and now lawyers are attempting to force the painting’s removal.
They also blamed Francis for the negative publicity suffered by the park’s management.
In the filed documents, park management states Francis going to the media is a, “ploy to garner media coverage and religious groups in an effort to avoid compliance.”
At the heart of the issue is whether the management of Tropical Palms is singling out Francis specifically for the subject matter of the painting. Management insists that the demand to remove the painting have nothing to do with religion and that Francis simply didn’t follow through on park rules pertaining to the replacement of her front window.
However, attorneys acknowledge in the documents that Francis submitted the forms, “but with no request for an overall change in appearance or design.”
Management insists Francis was required to submit additional requests to do the painting itself. Francis is not be targeted because of her religious beliefs, the lawyers said.
“This is pointed out solely to rebut the fact that (Francis) has attempted to turn the enforcement matter into an alleged discriminatory action by the board, when in fact, that allegation could not be further from the truth,” the documents state.
Francis isn’t buying that argument, noting that if the painting was of flowers she doubts this would have become an issue at all.
“It’s anti-Catholic and I don’t care what anybody says,” Francis said. “I’m sorry, but that’s what it is. I wasn’t late putting it up. That’s not the issue. It’s me and the painting.”
Francis said the issue has caused a divide in the Tropical Palms community and after living there for 15 years, neighbors have stopped talking to her while others have expressed support.
“It’s getting too far out of hand,” Francis said. “It’s terrible. I didn’t think it would get this far. I have chest pains more often than I ever did because of the stress. It’s worth it to me, though, except for my health, but I don’t care about that. Even if they fine me, they will have to do something else because it’s not coming down.”
The attorneys representing the park’s board of directors are Bryan Levine and Jessica Knox, of Palm Harbor. In their filing, they ask for an arbitrator to have Francis remove the plywood board with the painting on it and replace it with, “the previously installed window, a new window, or to seek further approval for any alteration differing from a window, as contemplated.” They also want Francis to pay for the park’s legal expenses.
The original paperwork filed with the park’s architectural review committee notes Francis’ intent to repaint the front of the trailer and “replace” the window due to privacy concerns.
Artist Ingrid Brandt was commissioned to do the painting and said as a commissioned artist, her work is protected under Florida law, ensuring that it can’t be destroyed or damaged. But it can be removed.
“I would like for it to stay, of course,” Brandt said. “It is something a bit different from what I normally paint and when I first started drawing it up, I had to investigate all the different intricacies. The cover she has, represents the sky and the stars aren’t just anywhere. They are in a precise location on the night she was seen.”
Brandt said she understands both sides, “But I do believe she should be able to keep it and it’s not hurting anyone. There are a lot of people in that park that have different things on their trailers and some are religious as well. With her faith, this is what she wanted.
“This whole, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ thing between the two sides is a shame. No one seems to want to bend, but I would not agree at all to it being destroyed. It goes against my rights and her’s under the law.”
The legal threats are taking a toll on Francis and the documents are full of legal language difficult for her to follow, but she has help. California resident John Pagliassotti read about Francis’ struggles to keep her painting and wanted to help. He’s a volunteer mediator with the Los Angeles Superior Court and is trying to find common ground between the two sides.
Francis is supposed to respond to the demand for arbitration by Jan. 28 and Pagliassotti is seeking a postponement of that process and to seek mediation instead.
“For an 85-year-old woman, this process is intimidating at best,” Pagliassotti said, noting concerns for Francis’ health. “I believe an amicable solution can be had if all parties are willing.”
The founders of the American Catholic Lawyers Association are also reviewing this case and are indicating they might be willing to get involved, as well.
Francis is open to finding a solution that doesn’t require her to take the painting down, because, “I don’t like neighbors not talking. It hurts. It’s unreal, because of what (park management) done harassing me constantly. I have one friend that says she can’t come over because of what’s happening in the park. I don’t understand this. It’s not evil, it’s blessed.”
Francis, who has a bad heart and escaped death a few years ago, believes this is what’s keeping her alive for at this point.
“The devil is trying hard to take care of things here and not allow our Virgin to be shown,” Francis said. “It has to be exposed and is going to be exposed. It’s just so sad the way people are, but I feel like I’ve been blessed in this way to expose her to people and that’s the way it’s going to be. Our Lady will take this over in time. Everything I do is praise for her and my Lord. It’s not me.”
Francis broke down in tears at her small kitchen table as she said, “The Lord had to have a reason for keeping me alive and I think it’s showing now. She’s going to stay.”