NAPLES, Fla. (ABP) — Pizza tycoon Thomas Monaghan, despite rumors to the contrary, will not forbid X-rated movies or ban the sale of contraceptives in his new, faith-based town in Florida. And he will allow you to live there if you aren't Catholic. But that doesn't mean he wants it that way.
Monaghan plans to build a Catholic town in Florida. It'll center around Ave Maria University, an orthodox Catholic college he founded near Naples. The first Catholic university to be built in more than 40 years, the school will cost roughly $240 million to build and will shine as a bastion of “wholly orthodox” higher learning in an attempt to rebuild the “city of God,” according to school officials.
Surrounding the school, the 5,000-acre town of Ave Maria will have enough housing for 30,000 people, a 60,000-square-foot church and the nation's largest stained-glass crucifix. It will hold mass starting at 6 a.m. and continuing every hour on the hour, seven days a week.
That kind of devotion strikes joy in the heart of many Catholics. But not everyone is quite as happy. Some Christian critics worry creating a municipality of faith threatens religious liberty. Even Baptists, who once established towns to practice their faith in peace, have questioned the potentially blurry lines of church-state separation Ave Maria draws.
A cautious critic himself, Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told Associated Baptist Press it's okay for a group of people to “settle in a common area” and establish an “incorporated city.” The problem comes, he said, when governmental authority gets absolute dominion.
“There is no local option on constitutional principles,” Walker said. “The U.S. Constitution and the constitution of Florida apply with full force. Both require a separation of the institutions of religion and government and forbid government from advancing or inhibiting religion. Religious freedom cannot be denied just because someone has enough money to buy a swath of land and wants to set up a Christian commonwealth.”
The idea to build a one-of-a-kind town around a distinctive school fits well with Monaghan's visionary drive, which turned a no-name pizza shop into the Domino's chain, worth more than $1 billion when he sold it in 1998.
An ex-Marine and college dropout, Monaghan grew up in a Catholic orphanage after his father died and his mother's health faltered. Influenced by the nuns who tutored him, he entered seminary in the ninth grade, only to be quickly expelled for “unruly behavior.”
In 1960, Monaghan purchased the unknown DomiNick's Pizza with his brother, James, and $500 of borrowed money. He ended up buying the restaurant from his brother soon after and expanding the business.
At the height of his pizza days, Monaghan owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team, collected Frank Lloyd Wright pieces and dealt in Bugatti Royales — a lavish lifestyle that would soon lead to a crisis of conscience.
After reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Monaghan renounced his grandiose lifestyle and began to simplify his tastes. He sold his yacht and airplanes, and he began fueling Catholic charity organizations, most notably the Mater Christi Foundation, which later became the Ave Maria Foundation.
Along with the private foundation, which financed Catholic education, media and community projects, Monaghan formed Legatus, an exclusive club for highly visible and powerful business leaders to use as a way to influence society with Catholic ideals. Started soon after Monaghan's private audience with Pope John Paul II in 1987, Legatus now has more than 1,500 members in the United States and Canada.
As chairman of the Ave Maria Foundation, Monaghan also founded Ave Maria College in 1998. Currently in Ypsilanti, Mich., the college has a branch campus in Nicaragua and a School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ave Maria University, temporarily in Naples, Fla., will become the centerpiece of Monaghan's education efforts when it opens in Ave Maria in 2007. Ave Maria College will close after the university opens. Representatives from the university declined to comment for this story.
On the Ave Maria University website, Monaghan said Naples, one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, offered an ideal quality of life for the university he planned.
“We wanted to build a major Catholic university in the southern part of the United States with the highest standards,” Monaghan said. “I can't think of a better place than … Naples. It will offer the best of both worlds — the great quality of life of Naples and a new dynamic Catholic and educational community.”
The university graduated 23 students this year and expects 400 by the fall, according to the Boston Phoenix. And while construction of the university will be a huge project, the surrounding “rural town,” 30 minutes from Naples, will be even bigger.
Barron Collier Companies will build the town. A Naples-based development company that donated the land, its plans for the project began in 2002 when university officials saw an opportunity to do something radical — build a university and a town together, from scratch.
“What we saw is that the university could be a wonderful catalyst for the development of a new town,” Barron Collier Companies spokesperson Dolly Roberts told ABP. “We had a brand, shiny, new development plan …. It was kind of serendipity.”
The fact that BCC shares a name with the county (Collier) where it settled is no accident. Company founder Barron Collier was the county's namesake. And the socially and politically conservative population there, along with the company's deep roots in agriculture development, makes it a prime spot for a Catholic university built by a longtime construction institution.
According to Roberts, BCC will build roughly 11,000 housing units of varying costs. As of February, more than 7,000 people had inquired about purchasing homes in the town, developers said, and more than 20 business owners have signed on as well. The company would not make any of the clients available for interview, however.
One aspect of Ave Maria that attracts people, Roberts said, is that it's a “traditional home town, but made for the 21st century.” A diversity of ages, the proximity of a higher-learning institution and a planned beauty will also attract those looking for a simpler life, she said.
Young mothers will be able to work in town and have kids on a softball team down the road. Older citizens will be able to play golf or take continuing-education classes, all in a haven that attempts to retrieve “the good old days.”
Roberts, herself a transplant from Manhattan, said many people have developed a longing for old times. She said the desire for simplicity is a main reason why Ave Maria appeals to prospective residents. “I think there is a certain amount of yearning … to know the people next to you and borrow a handsaw if you need one.”
Planning for the simple life is not so easy. Establishing a waste-water facility, organizing law enforcement, getting commercial spaces approved and establishing health care for residents takes a vast amount of coordination on several different levels.
Collier County will provide many public services, such as law enforcement. A local Ave Maria Stewardship Community District of five people will ensure the establishment of a public infrastructure.
One thing BCC workers did not plan for, however, was controversy.
It started after the Associated Press reported on a speech Monaghan gave at a Boston Catholic men's conference. He said he planned to prohibit condoms and birth-control pills, abortion and pornography in his new town.
Civil-rights activists and the American Civil Liberties Union quickly got involved, threatening scrutiny for unconstitutionality and potential lawsuits for violated civil rights. Environmental groups also raised alarm about the potential destruction of Florida panther habitat.
Other critics have questioned such practical applications as the availability of adequate reproductive health-care services and the use of public tax dollars to fund private schools.
A previous Supreme Court ruling could be invoked, if critics get loud enough. In 1994, a group of Hasidic Jews in New York were denied government school funding because their town, Kiryas Joel, had sectarian religious principles. The same could happen to Ave Maria, which has plans for a K-12 parochial school and possible public schools later.
For now, Monaghan told reporters he'll do what he can to control rules and regulations in the town, but he won't break the law.
Dianne DiNicola, executive director of Opus Dei Awareness Network, said that vagueness could mean anything. DiNicola oversees operations at the 15-year-old Pittsfield, Mass., group founded to provide information about Opus Dei and support for people who “have been adversely affected by Opus Dei.”
Opus Dei — which figures prominently in The Da Vinci Code — is an exclusive Catholic sect founded in 1928 in Spain whose 85,000 followers believe that everyday work can be used to grow closer to God.
DiNicola told ABP she receives reports of Opus Dei recruitment at Ave Maria University and potentially in the town.
“We have confirmed reports that Opus Dei has a connection with [the town of] Ave Maria,” DiNicola said. “There is such an undercurrent to Opus Dei that it is not readily seen, but we have seen recruitment and replacement of leadership positions.”
The danger of the group, she added, is that membership sometimes leads to alienation, loss of personal freedom, over-aggressive recruiting and, in some cases, self-inflicted pain and deprivation.
As for the general enterprise of a Catholic town, DiNicola said, it could have a good influence if people aren't controlled by its founder. She warned potential residents that, while the town sounds okay if leaders are “honest with what they do,” it's difficult to chart the daily actions and decisions of extreme Catholic groups like Opus Dei.
“I think the town is a good thing,” she said. “What is not good is not coming out with a hidden agenda.”
DiNicola said that “hidden agenda” is a “good old boy” system aimed at controlling people in Ave Maria.
Whether or not a crony system exists, Monaghan does have friends in high places, some of whom are his biggest supporters. The most notable is Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit priest who serves as provost of Ave Maria University. Fessio also founded Ignatius Press, which is the primary publisher of Pope Benedict XVI's works. Newsweek reported in February that when Fessio visited Benedict recently, the first thing Benedict said was, “How's Ave Maria?”
The papal connection is vital for Monaghan, who has been drawn to Fessio in part because they share a somewhat embattled status because of their orthodox Catholic views.
Despite concerns about constitutional rights, Fessio maintains everyone will be welcome in the town. “No matter what Tom's personal desires might be, or anybody else's, this town is going to be open to everybody,” he said in a 2005 interview.
“What do I want for the town? I'd hope the town would be like I'd like the whole planet to be — fully conformed to the truth,” Fessio said. “But that's not going to happen either. So I don't know. I'll accept whatever happens.”