The Solemnity of the Annunciation will be celebrated in churches around the world today. At Ave Maria University in Florida it takes on special meaning. “Ave Maria” are the first words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel.
“The Annunciation is an integral part of the history of Ave Maria University,” said the university’s chancellor, Thomas S. Monaghan. “We celebrate with the whole Church the miracle of the incarnation of Christ that took place at the moment of the Annunciation. Yet, this is an even more special Marian feast day for us because our name is derived from this event in history. It has become an occasion for us to celebrate the many blessings we have received and continue to receive as a university and a community.”
Monaghan can speak of many blessings in his own life. He bought a pizza parlor in 1960 with a $75 down payment and a $500 loan. In 1998, he sold Domino’s Pizza for an estimated $1 billion, and with the profits he made from the sale, he’s building the country’s first full-fledged Catholic university in 40 years.
Ave Maria University sits adjacent to the community of Ave Maria, Fla. The school is receiving approximately 1,000 visitors a week. It currently has more than 800 undergraduate and graduate students. The campus is adding a field house, and a football program will be starting shortly.
Monaghan met with Register senior writer Tim Drake in his office in Ave Maria and spoke about how the university and the town are progressing.
Of all the places in the country to start a Catholic university, why southwestern Florida?
I felt that it would be the easiest place to attract both students and faculty, and I wanted to be close to Latin America. Originally, I was going to buy land closer to Naples, but they wanted a lot of money for the land, and then we got the offer for free land here.
The developer wanted to enhance the other 9,900 acres they had, so they offered to donate property for our campus, and then we were able to purchase a 50% share in the surrounding land.
Why did you desire to be close to Latin America?
Half of the world’s Catholics live there. We have also been supporting schools and missions there since 1984.
We started a couple of schools in Honduras along with some other missionary outreaches such as a medical clinic, a ceramic business and an experimental farm. I used to go down there about four times a year. That’s how I got involved in rebuilding the cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua. The cardinal there asked me to help, and I thought that it was an important symbol for Catholicism at a crucial time in their history.
Thirteen percent of Ave Maria University’s students are international. Our goal is to get that up to 20%. Roughly 40% of our international students are from Latin America.
What is it like being in charge of a Catholic university?
It’s very exciting, very fulfilling. I’m working harder than I was when I was at Domino’s and enjoying it more. When I was at Domino’s, I was spending half of my time working on Catholic educational and other projects; now I can do it full time.
There is so much potential. I feel I’m doing something that’s so important. I think that Ave Maria University may be the most-watched private school in the country, and there’s an obligation to make it work and do it right.
Tell me about your inspiration for the oratory.
I am a Frank Lloyd Wright and Fay Jones buff; Jones was Wright’s most successful student. He was famous for his chapels, and I tried to take things that I liked about those chapels and make them bigger.
It’s a work in progress and will take years to bring it to its full potential, but it was important to have a dominant symbol that said what we were. It’s our “Golden Dome,” that no other building on campus should come close to.
What have been the biggest challenges in starting a university?
Moving from Michigan to Florida. There was a lot of resistance and negative press perpetrated by some who didn’t want to move. It got very emotional.
Almost everyone had moved to Michigan from somewhere else, so it wasn’t as if they were being taken away from their homestead.
Tell me about the relationship between the university and the town.
Barron Collier Co. owns a tremendous amount of land in the county, and they are our general partner in the town. There’s a permit for 11,000 homes, and we have engaged Pulte to build 80% of Phase I.
The hope is for our half of the profits to go toward an endowment for the university. There are some who have said that I’m trying to line my own pockets. I actually gave a grant to the university, so it could acquire a 50% ownership interest in the town land.
The profits from the sale of this land and from the town’s development will directly benefit the university. Everything is committed to the university. All of my assets are going to the university: It is that important.
Our timing in making the move to Florida couldn’t have been worse because of the economic downturn. Right now, the town is not growing as fast as we had hoped or projected, but I am confident that it will eventually; we’ll just have to wait a bit longer for the economy to come back, but this challenge is not specific to us.
Of the 11,000 homes, approximately 300 have been built. Pulte has invested about $100 million in infrastructure, such as the golf course and water park. They intend to spend about $30 million more on model homes, a community center and club house.
Many of our faculty reside in the town, and have moved here because of the K-12 school, Donahue Academy.
Tell me about the decision to add a football program.
We’ve always been interested in sports. Sports are a positive thing. Across the country, I’m told that student-athletes do better than the average student body. I think that’s true because if students want to be eligible to play, they study harder.
I don’t see that it has to be a detriment to academics. I also think it’s great for character building, especially if you hire the right coaches — i.e., devout Catholics.
We don’t insist that every faculty member be Catholic, yet all but two are. In hiring, I’d rather hire a non-Catholic who supports our mission than a mediocre Catholic.
We want everyone at AMU to be a Don Shula (NFL Hall of Fame coach) type of role model, and coaches even more so.
The sports page is the most-read page in the newspaper. There aren’t many orthodox schools that have football, so having a program should give us a chance to really get kids who want a strong Catholic education.
Most of our competition in our conference draws from regional schools, whereas we draw from around the country. I think it will help academics, and we should be able to win.
All [the players on] our men’s basketball team kept their eligibility, and [the team] finished fourth in their conference, and more than half the team are underclassmen.
How is fund-raising going?
It’s going miraculously well. Two years ago we had a record year with $10 million. Last year, we raised $12 million. This [fiscal] year we’re at $18 million, and we still have four months to go. This school year we’ve had two $1 million donations, a $5 million donation, a $4 million donation and an annuity for $1 million — and this is all with virtually no alumni.
Since we’ve been in Florida, we’ve had about 50,000 donors. We are in many people’s wills; we know of about 60, and from past experience, there are a lot of other people who have put us in their will and we don’t even know about it. We have also received donations from approximately 1,500 priests, which I find gratifying.
What sets Ave Maria University apart from other institutions?
Fidelity to the magisterium and Ex Corde Ecclesiae is what we’re about. We also have a strong discernment program. I think we’ll produce more vocations than any school in the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not already true. One year, 32% of our male graduates chose to pursue a religious vocation.
We have a core curriculum, and our academics are tough. I hear of a lot of grade inflation going on now around the country because schools can get too focused on retention. We aim to provide both academic and spiritual excellence.
I don’t know of a university that has better student life than us. Who has a chastity club that was started by the students?
We do not have any coed residence halls. I think all of these things are unique.
What do you have planned for the future?
We want to have an impact on Catholic schools. We want to have a teaching program expressly for teaching in Catholic schools and a M.A. program for principals in Catholic schools.
I’m most interested in kindergarten through graduate Catholic education and vocations. I believe that the biggest reason our Church has struggled to some degree over the last number of decades was not due to Vatican II, but what has happened to Catholic education at all levels — i.e., the nuns leaving the classroom, the Land O’Lakes Conference, etc.
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.