When the morning sun rises and the evening sun sets at Ave Maria University, the first and last place that the Florida sunlight hits is the 13-foot Celtic gold cross that sits atop Ave Maria’s oratory. Rising, as it does, 108 feet, it’s the tallest building in the community, and rays of the sun reflect off the golden symbol of faith at the center of Florida’s newest university and town.
The first and the last is a fitting metaphor. Inside the expansive church, emblazoned on the large gold and blue tabernacle with tanzanite gems embedded in it, are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, reminding visitors that Christ is the beginning and the end.
Set in rural southwestern Florida, between the cities of Naples and Immokalee, the oratory might seem an odd place for a religious pilgrimage. Yet, the site beckons for a visit.
The oratory serves as a quasi parish for the Diocese of Venice. During peak season, the oratory, university and town receive upwards of 1,600 visitors weekly, all eager for a look at the country’s newest Catholic university in nearly four decades and the church that serves it.
The oratory is clearly the focal point for the snowbirds and year-round residents who reside in the town’s homes and condominiums, as well as for the administration, faculty, staff and students at Ave Maria University, which sits directly across the street from the church. The European-style town, with its brightly colored retail shops and condominiums and business offices, surrounds the oratory.
The travertine stone facade of the church rises sharply, resembling two miters. Bent steel supports mimicking flying buttresses begin on the outside of the oratory and continue their graceful arcs, crisscrossing inside high above the worship space.
While the gothic-contemporary style might seem out of place in southwestern Florida, it’s a look that appeals to the university’s founder and chancellor, Tom Monaghan. The style is inspired by the work of architect Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, such as the Mildred Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista, Ark.
Monaghan makes no secret that he’s a fan. All of the university buildings, as well as Domino Farms in Ann Arbor, Mich., reflect this style.
The oratory completes Monaghan’s vision — which he once sketched on a tablecloth while dining with friends at a Naples, Fla., restaurant. That tablecloth and other memorabilia from Monaghan’s life can be viewed in the town’s museum.
An immense crucifix and the oratory-shaped tabernacle are the focal points of the 1,143-seat church. The 22.5-foot crucifix includes an oak cross and a 12-foot corpus made of bronze. Designed by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, it weighs 4,000 pounds.
The interior is dominated by gray stone and dark wood elements. The oak pews, designed by Monaghan, were constructed by “the pew crew,” a group of volunteers from Michigan. The cross design found on each pew end matches the wall décor surrounding each of eight confessionals that line the left- and right-hand sides of the oratory.
Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lanterns illuminate the worship space. Each lantern is 11-feet tall and built of white oak, bronze and glass. The design is based on a Wright chandelier found in the home of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
Composite marble Stations of the Cross are situated above the confessional doors. The stations, which are more than 90 years old, were salvaged from a Detroit church.
While elements of the oratory are still unfinished, the church is no less impressive to visit. One can imagine what the oratory will eventually look like. Once completed, the sanctuary will include large statues of the Twelve Apostles, as well as several other dramatic features.
An Annunciation sculpture, being carved by artist Marton Varo, will be affixed above the main entry. Varo has already sculpted the heads of Mary and Gabriel. Visitors can watch Varo at work on the campus grounds and see a one-to-five scale working model just outside the front of the oratory. Once completed, the 35-foot-tall by 31-foot-wide sculpture will be one of the largest depictions of the Blessed Mother in the world. It is sculpted from blocks of Carrara marble, the same Italian marble (from the same cave) as Michelangelo used to carve “David” and “The Pieta.”
During my recent visit to the university I found myself drawn, like a moth to a light, to the oratory several times. My first visit was simply to see the imposing structure. My next three visits were to attend daily Mass.
Like other visitors, I was awed by the number of students who attended daily Mass, whether it was early in the morning, at noon, or late in the afternoon.
Older visitors say such devotion reminds them of their younger days and gives them great hope for the future of the Church.
Clearly, Ave Maria is a place of renewal, and the oratory sits at the center of that renewal, a fitting symbol for a university named after the Mother of God.
“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,” Monaghan told me. “It’s our ‘Golden Dome,’ that no other building on campus should come close to.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake is
based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Ave Maria Oratory
Ave Maria University
5050 Ave Maria Blvd.
Ave Maria, FL 34142
Planning Your Visit
Numerous Masses are offered each week: A Mass in English is offered 16 times, a novus ordo Latin Mass is offered once, and the extraordinary form in Latin is offered three times. During the school year, the sacrament of reconciliation is offered every afternoon.
One of the best times to visit the oratory is on the solemnity of the Annunciation, the date of the groundbreaking and founding of Ave Maria University. An anniversary Mass is widely attended by university staff, students and the town’s residents.