The St. Patrick's of South Florida?

NAPLES, Fla. — Eyebrows raised from coast to coast March 24 when Ave Maria University announced its intentions to build one of the largest Catholic churches in the country, bearing the largest crucifix in the world, on its new campus in Naples, Fla.

While it will not eclipse St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York or Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles in sheer size, the 60,000-square-foot Oratory of Ave Maria will accommodate 3,300 people. This will give it a greater seating capacity than any other Catholic church in the United States — including those giants.

A 60-foot red glass cross and 40-foot bronze corpus will be embedded in the 150-foot façade.

The sanctuary will be the “spiritual and physical centerpiece” of the university and town, said Ave Maria president Nicholas Healy.

“We want it to be beautiful, to be striking, to be a fitting symbol of our desire to glorify God,” he told the Register.

Scale models show the oratory's limestone foundation opening onto 3,000 tons of structural steel welded into arches. The walls will be clad in aluminum and glass to filter light into the sanctuary and nave, an effect that project designer Harry Warren of Cannon Design describes as “a contemporary rendition of a Gothic cathedral.”

“It's very unique,” said Warren, adding that the architecture is meant to follow the natural environmental features in southern Florida. “At night you'll be able to see it from several miles. It will be a landmark on the horizon.”

In the days following the announcement, Catholic discussion boards on the Internet quickly filled with comments and critiques. Opinions were decidedly mixed and, perhaps predictably, no consensus emerged.

In an interview with the Register, Duncan Stroik, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and editor of the journal Sacred Architecture, said: “This looks very retro in the sense of Catholic architecture, very 1950s. I'm surprised they'd do a mid-20th-century church for the 21st century.”

Echoing the ambivalence evident in the online discussions, Stroik added that he applauds the school for making the oratory the focus of the campus but questions whether the architecture will foster a sense of transcendence.

“I'm not sure there's a lot to draw students there to pray between Masses,” said the architect, who has designed numerous chapels and churches.

Not all the students are thrilled about the design, either. Bryan Jerabek, a senior and philosophy major, told the Register that, while he likes the idea of the Gothic-style arches, he doesn't care for the glass-and-metal exterior.

“It seems like it would have a very bright interior and be very distracting, not a good place for prayer or to capture that sense of mystery,” he said.

But Healy said it's a misconception that the oratory will be simply a big glass building. “It's not going to be glass. It was never intended to be glass,” he said.

The outside of the church, he pointed out, will be covered with cladding that will greatly diffuse the natural sunlight. Possible materials for the cladding include copper, aluminum and steel.

“Everyone understands that you can't have a glass building in Florida without stupendous heat buildup,” he said. The 20-foot limestone foundation will make it impossible to see directly outside from the wooden pews, he said.

Unlike the oratory, which was inspired by the work of Fay Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright, the rest of the campus’ buildings will be tame in design — concrete structures with clear glass and coated copper roofs. Among the 15 buildings called for in the first construction phase are a library, dormitories, an activities center and a school for grades K-12.

The oratory and campus will be completed by fall 2006. Current enrollment at the interim Florida location is 122 in its second semester; Healy said enrollment should eventually rise to 5,000.

The projected cost of the oratory is $40 million. In 2002, Domino's Pizza founder and Ave Maria chairman Tom Monaghan gave $200 million to fund the university. The Ave Maria campus in Ypsilanti, Mich., was founded in 1998.

The oratory will also serve as the church for the Town of Ave Maria, which could have a population of 20,000 to 30,000.

By definition, an oratory is a place of prayer, but generally it means a structure other than a parish church set aside by ecclesiastical authority for prayer and Mass. Because the oratory is affiliated with the university and not with the Diocese of Venice, Fla., school officials have applied to the diocese for permission to celebrate marriages, baptisms and funerals, and are awaiting a response.

Diocesan spokeswoman Gail McGrath confirmed the administration is working with Bishop John Nevins and said the diocese is excited about being home to the first major Catholic university founded in 40 years.

The oratory will be at the center of the school and town, connecting the two by an oval plaza in the style of many European cathedrals. Its basement will house a Eucharistic adoration chapel and 14 confessionals, one for each Station of the Cross, as well as burial crypts.

Despite the immense size — 300 feet long by 150 feet wide — Healy said that, if anything, the oratory might not be big enough.

“I think within a few years it's going to prove too small,” he predicted. “When you have a town of 20,000 people and 5,000 students at the university, and a good majority of them Catholic, then that church is going to be too small.”

Dana Lorelle writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.