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Leap of Faith

Ave Maria
Ave Maria [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

In 2002, Tom Monaghan was looking for a new home for Ave Maria College, the Roman Catholic college he’d founded four years earlier. Monaghan had sold his interest in Domino’s Pizza, the successful pizza chain he’d founded in 1960, for a reported $1 billion and had created

Ave Maria as a training ground for a new generation of ultraobservant businessmen, politicians, lawyers, scientists, priests and educators.

With 260 students, the school had outgrown its campus in Ypsilanti, Mich., which lacked an adequate chapel, dining facilities and athletic fields. Monaghan’s first choice for a new site was Domino’s Farms, a 1,700-acre complex in Ann Arbor where Domino’s Pizza is headquartered, and his plans were anything but modest, including the tallest freestanding crucifix in the world.

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But Ann Arbor Township refused to rezone the property, and Monaghan began looking elsewhere. He’d been vacationing regularly in Naples since 2001 and thought the sunny weather might be a good draw for faculty, staff and students. He liked the political climate as well. “The zoning is the opposite of what I experienced back in Michigan. First words out of the first commissioner’s mouth I talked to was, ‘What do we got to do to get you here?’ I’m not used to hearing that,” he recalls.

Sticker Shock: “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 Tom Monaghan, inside the town’s oratory. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Monaghan initially focused his attention on an expensive parcel of land about three miles east of I-75 on Immokalee Road, just six miles from the beach and 20 miles from downtown Naples. But when word got out about his plans, the Barron Collier Co., a Naples-based land development company, called Monaghan with an offer. Barron Collier would give Monaghan 750 acres in Collier County for Monaghan’s university, and Barron Collier would develop the 4,000-plus acres around it with residential and commercial projects.

Monaghan hesitated because the Barron Collier site was so remote — 35 miles northeast of downtown Naples near Immokalee, a rural town with a large population of migrants who work the area’s tomato and sod farms. But the lure of free land won out. “Everything’s going to fill in anyhow because it’s growing so fast, and so we won’t be out in the boondocks for long,” he says.

The landscape — formerly tomato and vegetable fields — is already changing. A small, European-style town now wraps, horseshoe-style, around a 104-foot tall steel and stone cathedral called an “oratory.” Streets with names like Pope John Paul II Boulevard branch off from the town center like spokes of a wheel toward neatly laid out subdivisions, where homes with barrel-tile roofs are springing up.

Just a short walk from the oratory is Monaghan’s long-awaited university — its six buildings reflecting Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie-style” architecture. Each has its own chapel. So far, Monaghan says he is impressed with the results: “It’s come together, and I’m really excited now. Last time I was out there I was just enthralled.”

"I think there’s a lot of people in the world that don’t like what I’m doing and don’t like what I represent. And they’d like to believe if there was anything bad I could do that I would do it. And they hope I would." — Tom Monaghan
[Photo: Ave Maria]


What Monaghan didn’t anticipate is how much friction moving the school to Florida would generate.

When he welcomed 100 students to a new interim campus for his university in The Vineyards, a Mediterranean-style subdivision in North Naples in August 2003, he pledged that Ave Maria College in Michigan would remain open until 2007 to allow the last remaining students to graduate.

But as Ave Maria University began to take root in Florida, the transfer of resources to the Florida campus accelerated. Books, money and other assets began to leave Ypsilanti, and the parents of some students complained publicly. Outspoken faculty members worried that southwest Florida wouldn’t offer the same intellectual environment as nearby Ann Arbor, which has a reputation as a kind of Berkeley of the Midwest.

In September 2004, the Rev. Neil Roy, then-academic dean of Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, sued the school and its board of trustees to try to halt the move, arguing that it would threaten the school’s accreditation and the students’ ability to receive financial aid. Monaghan responded that he simply didn’t have the financial means to support two schools, and he refused to back down. “I had no idea how much emotion would get into it,” he says. An Ann Arbor judge dismissed the lawsuit a year later.

Intramural controversy at the school has continued. Last October, then-university Provost Joseph Fessio wrote a letter to Ave Maria supporters stating that the Florida school was having trouble recruiting and retaining students. Without donations to a new scholarship fund, he wrote, the school would “incur deficits over the next few years which will be unsustainable.” In March, Monaghan fired Fessio for “irreconcilable differences over administrative policies and practices” then hired the well-liked official back as the “theologian in residence.”

More friction came when Monaghan announced plans to relocate Ave Maria School of Law from Ann Arbor to Florida in 2009. Students, faculty and alumni protested, worried that the move would damage the young school’s reputation and possibly endanger its accreditation. Thus far, their efforts to block the move have been unsuccessful.

Monaghan has tried to take all the discord in stride: “Well, it’s natural that people don’t like to uproot and move. There was a lot of controversy, but we were attacked a lot. We turned the other cheek. We kept moving forward.”

Condos, not condoms

Meanwhile, controversy over Ave Maria spread outside of the Wolverine state. At the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference in 2005, Monaghan said in a speech that he would “control all the commercial real estate, so there’s not going to be any pornography sold in this town. We’re controlling the cable system. The pharmacies are not going to be able to sell condoms or dispense contraceptives.”

» "I was brought up to believe we’re born for a purpose. We’re supposed to live a certain way, and if we do, we’ll be rewarded and if we don’t, we’ll be punished. And I believe that. I think that’s the way I ought to live. I don’t always do it, of course." — Tom Monaghan

National media picked up on the story, and the American Civil Liberties Union lashed out: “This is not Catholicism — this is not a story about Catholicism. It’s a story about any religious group trying to exercise governmental power,” Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s ACLU, told MSNBC talk show host Tucker Carlson in 2006.

Monaghan eventually toned down his rhetoric. A month after the ACLU’s backlash, he and Barron Collier CEO Paul Marinelli issued a joint statement to address the “growing misperception” that Ave Maria would be a Catholic-only enclave. “Because the university’s leadership, in accordance with Catholic teachings, opposes the sale of contraceptives, retailers in the town have been asked to refrain from selling contraceptives. However, it is critical to note that no restrictions will be enforced on contraceptives or any other inventory.”

Spreading the Word: Good Morning America’ reporter Gigi Stone interviews an Ave Maria nun during a “town fest” in July. [Photo: Dawn DiNardo]
In a recent interview with Florida Trend, Monaghan emphasized the town’s more secular virtues. Ave Maria will be “family oriented” and “wholesome,” Monaghan says. He says the university will operate a top-notch parochial K-12 school for families in the area.

Monaghan’s business partners navigate carefully around Monaghan’s ideology. During a tour of the new town in July, Blake Gable, town project manager and vice president of real estate for Barron Collier, mentions several times that he’s an Episcopalian. Meanwhile, Pulte Homes, which is building the residential portion of Ave Maria Town, has adopted the marketing slogan “Every Family. Every Lifestyle. Every Dream.” In fact, federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin.

The home builder declined to give any information about the demographics of Ave Maria home buyers. “Nobody can answer that question,” responded Beth Cocchiarella, Florida area director of public relations for Pulte Homes.

Gable insists that Monaghan makes for a good business partner. “He’s doing what’s in his heart — how can you possibly fault him? He sets high standards and high goals, and I hope he’d say we’re good partners. They’re incredibly fair and honest people. We haven’t had a lot of issues.”


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]
So far, Pulte has sold about 250 homes. Gable says Barron Collier is comfortable with the pace of sales and points out that the company is on target for a 10- to 15-year buildout. “These are long-term investments for us. I would much rather be in the situation that we are in than to have sold 900 homes, 600 of which would have speculators. That would have been a disaster.”

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.”