Mogul Tom Monaghan envisioned Ave Maria as the perfect faithful community. But will its residents sing from the same hymnal?
SIX YEARS AGO, Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza founder turned Catholic philanthropist, flew over southwest Florida and saw a dream become possible. Amid the run-down tomato farms, he would transplant his Michigan-based Ave Maria University and develop an entire community by the same name, putting the church physically and spiritually at its center. For a time, he even hoped to ban pornography and contraceptives there. But just a year after the town opened, Ave Maria has attracted more controversy and fewer residents than Monaghan ever expected.
The ten-mile oil Well Road that runs west from the sprawl of Naples to Ave Maria is narrow and dangerous. It becomes slick in the rain, and mile-long stretches are surrounded by pools of standing water-breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Driving away from the gulf and its breezes, the temperature can rise as much as ten degrees during the trip. Construction vehicles traveling to Ave Maria or to Immokalee, its much poorer neighbor, careen down the road at 80 miles per hour, scaring the new residents. Builders want the county to expand the road to six lanes with a manicured median, but tax receipts aren't yet sufficient to support that vision.
Near Ave Maria Boulevard, one of two entrances to the town, the rough and thick of the Everglades falls away, replaced by fields of trim sod. Flanked by two huge waterfall installations bearing the town's name, the four-lane thoroughfare is immaculately landscaped with sable palms and buttonwood. The effect is transporting and pleasant at first, but after several miles turns monotonous and unsettling.
The few hundred residents are divided among four neighborhoods that surround the college campus. On the south side are Dell Webb and Bellera Walk. The former is built around a golf course designed by Gordon Lewis and a recreation center called South Park. Bellera Walk is a gated community featuring dozens of manmade ponds and lakes. Neither neighborhood is within walking distance of the town center; both are marketed to "active adults" by Pulte Homes, the homebuilder. At the far northern end of town is Emerson Park, which contains the lowest-priced homes, starting in the high $200s. This section of town has filled up most quickly and is within walking distance of baseball and soccer fields and a parochial K-12 school. Near the town center is Hampton Village, where many professors live. Each neighborhood has four model homes near its entrance. The developer offers 16 designs; variation depends on buying a screened patio with a pool. At full capacity, Ave Maria would have 11,000 homes, but so far only about 300 have been built.
At the center of this town is Ave Maria Oratory, an imposing and strange steel and stone building. It sits in La Piazza, an awkwardly named square with commercial property on the ground level and luxury apartments above. The sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate outdoor seating for restaurants that have yet to arrive. There is a jewelry shop, a supply store for homeschoolers, a coffee and smoothie shop, and the university bookstore. The architecture is friendly, bright, and soft, a facsimile of New Urbanist ideas.
When I first approached it, builders were entering and exiting the sides of the oratory as they finished work on the confessionals. Throughout La Piazza, audio speakers emitted insipid smooth jazz. Claire, a recent graduate and current employee of the university, leaned against the railing on the steps, waiting for a Mend. Sie asked for my first impressions, and I ventured that putting a church like this in the center of town seemed unusual. She shot back, "It's not unusual at all. Every town in Europe is like this, and was built this way, with the church-God-at its center." She implied that it was the rest of America-suburbanized, unchurched or megachurched, and anonymous-that was the real aberration. …