Trailer park Virgin Mary art spurs legal battle

Mark Young
The Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON, Fla. — A legal battle is brewing over a portrait of the Virgin Mary that an 85-year-old devout Catholic woman 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 lawsuit included a demand for arbitration, a process where in which arbitrator’s ruling would be legally binding to keep it out of a courtroom.

The issue with Francis went public in early November when property management demanded that she remove the painting, which depicts Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Francis declaring, “They’ll have to kill me first.”

A week later, attorneys representing the trailer 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 negative publicity about the park’s management.

In the filed documents, park management says that Francis going to the media is a “ploy to garner media coverage and religious groups in an effort to avoid compliance.”

The issue: 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 says the demand to remove the painting has 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 says Francis was required to submit additional requests for permission for the painting. Francis is not 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 say.

Francis isn’t buying that argument, noting that if the painting was of flowers she doubts it would have become an issue.

“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.”

Divided: Francis said the painting has divided the Tropical Palms community and after living there for 15 years, she has been shunned by some neighbors 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.”

In their filing, lawyers ask for an arbitrator to order that 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.” They also want Francis to pay 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 because of privacy concerns.

The art: Artist Ingrid Brandt was commissioned to do the painting and said that 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 hers 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 wants 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.

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.”