After Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan sold the pizza chain, he had a grander vision for his next project: a university and town built on Catholic beliefs.
“There is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria Town,” Monaghan said in 2004, in a speech on his vision for the Florida town. “If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won’t be able to get that in Ave Maria Town.”
While Monaghan retracted his statements, Ave Maria has grown into a religious-centric town like no other in the last 12 years, funded in large part by the former pizza CEO.
In 2003, Ave Maria University opened in Florida, on a temporary campus in what would become Ave Maria Town. Monaghan donated $250 million to found the university, and served as CEO until 2011.
Monaghan is known for linking his faith and politics, donating thousands of dollars to anti-abortion organisations and measures, as well as filing a lawsuit against Obamacare due to its free contraception coverage. Ave Maria University was founded with similar aspirations of bringing religion to public life, hoping to mould “the future faithful educators, leaders, and mentors that our challenged society needs.”
“This is perhaps the single most vital task for Catholic academicians: to explicate the truths of the faith, and measure against them the evolving societal propositions or practices in politics, the arts, the economy, etc.,” reads the university’s website. “Fifty or more years ago, they included Marxism, Nazism, and Freudianism. Today they include abortion, fetal research, cloning, same-sex ‘marriage,’ moral relativism, and world terrorism.”
Ave Maria Town was intended to serve as a planned community where the university could blossom into a major Catholic institute of higher education. However, while the university has banned pornography and other entertainment that doesn’t respect Catholic culture, requires modest attire, and expects students to “love God above all things,” such direct regulations would be impossible in a town.
In 2003, real estate developers Barron Collier Companies agreed to donate 1,000 acres to Monaghan to build the university, if the company could develop the nearby land, creating Ave Maria Town.
Gov. Jeb Bush signed Ave Maria Stewardship Community District into law in June 2004. The designation of a stewardship is one used for planned communities that give developers government-like powers as the town is being built. That level of control has raised concerns from critics, as landowners (Monaghan and Barron Collier), not registered voters, elect the town’s governing board.
Publicly, the town is avowedly open to all. Concerns that Ave Maria is a Catholic town, completely under Monaghan’s control, are not reflected in the realities of local laws — but do seem to impact the town’s culture.
The most striking and notable structure in Ave Maria Town is the Ave Maria Oratory, a distinctive church in the center of the town. The oratory was established as a quasi-parish in 2008, and regularly hosts youth groups, concerts, and other events in addition to daily Catholic masses.
In a town of only about 720 homes, the presence of the Oratory, Ave Maria University, a parochial school, and shops selling saints and religious literature means that Catholicism dominates the landscape.
Meanwhile, there are no other houses of worship in the town, though Barron Collier spokesperson has said the town is open to other religious buildings.
While there are no bans on birth control or abortion in the town, the town’s only OB/GYN reportedly refuses to prescribe contraception medication to women. There are currently no pharmacies in the town where individuals can purchase birth control, with the closest pharmacy about seven miles away. While there are clinics and a dentist in town, there are apparently no hospitals that could provide abortions or birth control.
The ACLU has been publicly critical of the town since it was founded, with the Florida executive director, Howard Simon, expressing concern that plans for Ave Maria Town may be unconstitutional. However, no case has been successfully filed against Monaghan or Ave Maria.
Additionally, while there have been some residents who have become disillusioned with the town, many find the criticism unearned.
“There are people of all faiths — and some with no faith — living in Ave Maria,” reads a 2014 article in The Ave Herald claiming to debunk myths about the town. “Some come because the homes are a good value. Others come to live by a golf course, as many people in Florida do. And yes, some come because the town is built around a Catholic university and offers a family-friendly environment for people of all religious beliefs”
Whatever the reason, the town is growing. Ave Maria Town is now one of the fastest growing communities in Southwest Florida, with 283 new homes in 2015.
As the population increases, it will become clear if Ave Maria Town is simply a small, planned college town, or if certain practices that go against Catholicism will never be tolerated in a community founded by Monaghan.
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