Leap of Faith
Dominoes founder Tom Monaghan expected things to go smoothly when he began moving his Roman Catholic college from Michigan to Southwest Florida. But ...
As a business proposition, the town of Ave Maria is still in its infancy. The project has drawn praise from the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida and the Collier County Audubon Society for its sensitivity to the environment. The developers have agreed to set aside or restore 17,000 acres, including quality Florida panther habitat, in six spots around Immokalee in exchange for development rights.
As they have everywhere in Florida, building costs for the project have exploded. “One thing I thought about this area is it was going to be cheaper than Michigan. Our costs for construction in three years’ time doubled. I couldn’t believe it,” says Monaghan.
town center: Visitors check out the town during an open house in July. The European-style downtown wraps horseshoe-style around the oratory. Still in its infancy, the town has drawn praise for its sensitivity to the environment. The university is a short walk away. [Photo: Daniel DiNardo]
Monaghan, for his part, is focusing mostly on his role as chancellor of the university. Though he owns a condo in La Piazza, the town square, Monaghan says he’ll probably live in the dorms like he did in Michigan. “Gives me a feel for what’s going on. Certainly convenient,” he says.
Monaghan says his long-term plan is to grow enrollment over the next 20 years to 5,500 students and boost the average SAT score to 1,400. The goal, he says, is not to become a large school. “We don’t want to be a diploma factory. We want to be a saint factory.” The two most popular clubs at the school, he says, are the Chastity Team and Students for Life. “I think we’ve got the kind of school where a certain kind of student will come to no matter where it’s at. No matter where they’re from.”
Monaghan’s ultimate goal is not only to create a successful Catholic school but to help the church return to its more conservative roots. The Catholic Church, he says, is “making a turnaround,” and Ave Maria can be “at the cusp of that wave.”
Ironically, the towering oratory that’s at the center of the school and town can’t call itself a church yet, since it belongs to Monaghan. Until the Catholic Church owns it, there’s no official connection to the church. Campus priests may celebrate Mass, give communion and hear confessions in the building but may not perform baptisms or marriages unless they receive permission from the local bishop. Monaghan is discussing the future of the facility with the Diocese of Venice.
Despite his commitment to the church, Monaghan downplays his own piety. “I don’t consider myself devout. I would say that would be my goal. I’ve got a long ways to go. I’ve got a lot of making up to do.”