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Church makes a town
Catholic values and traditions shape the new community of Ave Maria, east of Naples.
By SHERRI DAY
Published July 23, 2007
Thomas S. Monaghan, Chancellor of the Ave Maria University, during an interview in the Canizaro Library on campus at the new town and Catholic University near Naples.
[Times photo: DIRK SHADD]
[Times photo: DIRK SHADD]
Thomas S. Monaghan, Chancellor of the Ave Maria University, talks with Martin Bashir, ABC's Nightline host, while filming an interview outside of the Oratory which sits in the center of the new town and Catholic University near Naples.
» Fast Facts
Founded: 2002. Opened in 2003 on an interim campus in Naples.
Students: 450 in 2006-07; 570 expected in the fall.
From: 43 states and 13 countries
Catholic: 98 percent
Non-Catholic: 1 to 2 percent
Faculty: 95 percent Catholic, plus a Jewish rabbi and a Greek Orthodox professor
Prohibitions: Coed dorms, gay support groups
Required classes: Sacred scripture, sacred doctrine, Living In Christ: moral theology; and Latin.
Sits on: 5,000 acres
Proposed: 11,000 homes ranging from condos, townhomes and single-family houses that cost from $170,000 to more than $600,000.
Target market: Singles; young families; and retirees from across Florida, the Northeast and the Midwest.
Amenities: Ballparks, golf course, water park, town center with retail and banking operations.
Schools: Private K-12 Catholic school opens in August with 140 kids enrolled. Run by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Plan to build a public elementary and middle school as demand warrants.
Sources: Thomas S. Monaghan; Ave Maria University; Barron Collier Cos.
AVE MARIA - Dressed nattily in a blue suit, Thomas S. Monaghan strolled up Pope John Paul II Boulevard and across Annunciation Circle to the base of the Oratory, a 104-foot-tall church topped with a gold-leaf Celtic cross. Twice. A camera crew taped his leisurely gait for an upcoming spot on ABC's Nightline.
Monaghan's Ave Maria, the much-hyped Catholic university and adjoining town, opened this weekend with a festival to celebrate what marketers call the first major Catholic university to open in 40 years. The project's developers hail it as the first modern simultaneous development of a university and community.
Monaghan, a cradle Catholic who made his fortune as the founder of Domino's Pizza, eagerly anticipates the university's relocation later this month.
"Ten years I've been trying to get a permanent campus," said Monaghan, 70, sitting in a new library. "It's been a long journey, and it's a day I've been looking forward to."
Several years ago, Monaghan thrust Ave Maria into the national spotlight when he donated more than $200-million to create an orthodox Catholic university and a town that would share its values. His comments angered civil libertarians and church-state watchdogs who worried that a municipality might try to enforce Catholic values on its residents. Would drug stores refuse to sell birth control? Would health centers provide abortions? Would adult bookstores be banned? Would non-Catholics be welcome?
These days Monaghan seems to have softened his position. He claims he never intended to impose his beliefs on others.
"This idea that we're not going to have pornography or adult bookstores or abortion clinics, that's not unique to us," Monaghan said. "But because I said it, apparently, it takes on a different dimension."
Monaghan and Ave Maria developer Barron Collier Cos. stress that none of the company's communities in Collier County feature those elements. And there is no prohibition against non-Catholics.
Civil liberties groups remain on guard. Florida's American Civil Liberties Union just opened a chapter in Collier County.
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Four years ago, Mike O'Shea, the chief financial officer of a Catholic executive organization, decided he wanted his four children to attend Ave Maria's private Catholic grade schools. So he landed a job in nearby Naples and commuted from Tampa for more than year as he waited for Ave Maria to take shape.
"We wanted something with a more traditional approach to Catholic education," said O'Shea, 40. "Knowing Tom Monaghan's background and what he's done and some of his other ventures, we knew that the standards were up to what we were looking for for our children."
John and Marie Saia might one day become his neighbors. Earlier this week, the Annapolis couple toured model homes in Ave Maria in search of a retirement property.
"It looks like a nice community that has everything," said Marie Saia, 43. It would be nice "to feel a sense of community with people who share your beliefs."
The university and its surrounding community are also attractive to empty nesters Key and Eleanor Doromal, who plans to return to school to pursue a master's degree in theology.
"It's a tossup between Saint Leo University and this one," said Doromal, 54, as she toured a model home. "We already have a house in Wesley Chapel, but we're just interested to see the university with a community around it. I'm just amazed."
Ave Maria sits 20 miles east of Interstate 75, down a two-lane road that seemingly leads to nowhere. Some day, Blake Gable, the site's project manager, expects the 5,000-acre town to have 11,000 residences.
So far developers have contracts for about 250 homes and condos in Ave Maria, said Gable, an Episcopalian. Much remains to be done, as construction crews line nearly every street in the sprawling development. But Gable promises a gas station, bank, coffee shop and grocery store in the near future.
Monaghan will live in a 1,600-square-foot condo that overlooks the Oratory in the town center.
He's optimistic that one day his university will be a Catholic Ivy League school and the adjoining town will bustle with activity and life.
"We're on our way to a new revival in the Catholic Church in this country," he said. "The Catholic Church has turned the corner."
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So far the ACLU has only watched Monaghan's experiment, but it promises action if there is a hint of church and state becoming one.
"If there is an effort to try to impose religious law on public institutions like schools, hospitals and pharmacies, it's going to trigger ACLU action," said Howard Simon, executive director of Florida's American Civil Liberties Union.
"We just chartered a chapter of the ACLU in Collier County in part because of the notion that there was an effort to impose religious law on some township. If the county made the mistake of allowing that to happen there may be decades of litigation staring Collier County in the face."
Monaghan, who also once owned the Detroit Tigers, left the pizza business in 1998 and devoted himself to funding Catholic causes. More than a decade earlier, he founded the Ann Arbor Ave Maria Foundation to focus on Catholic education projects. He established Ave Maria College in 1998 in Michigan and opened the Ave Maria School of Law in 2000.
When Monaghan had trouble persuading government officials to allow him to expand his college in Michigan, he looked south to Florida to former tomato and sod farms nestled between Naples and Immokalee.
Ave Maria began operating out of a temporary location in north Naples in 2003 with many students from Michigan transferring to the Florida campus. Construction on the new site kicked off early last year. When school opens Aug. 20, officials expect more than 500 students in classes.
The journey to the town of Ave Maria, which has its own ZIP code, was not entirely smooth. Twenty-five percent of the faculty from the Michigan college refused to move to Florida, Monaghan said. The Michigan campus closed this spring when its last two students graduated. Plans are in place to relocate the law school in 2009.
Rising construction costs and a labor shortage stand to push construction costs to $400-million, triple Monaghan's initial estimate. As a result, the schools' dorm rooms are smaller and the gym won't be ready in time for this school year. Monaghan estimates it will take about $800-million to complete the campus over the next two decades.
But donations - some $40-million so far, according to Monaghan - remain strong. And students say they're happy with the university and the promise of a permanent home.
The numbers seem to back up their story, with about 88 percent of all sophomores scheduled to return for classes this year, said Monaghan, who serves as the university's chancellor.
Dorothy Serrao, a sophomore theology major from Minnesota, finds the school's religious orientation attractive.
"I had come from public school (and) had never really been in an atmosphere where everyone had the same faith," said Serrao, 19. "Being able to go to Mass and just share all those things in common with so many people just amazed me. ... There's nothing I'm missing out on at all."
Times staff writer Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.