Catholic Town? Rumors Dog Ave Maria, Fla.

AVE MARIA, Fla. — Shovels went in the ground and controversy sprouted up surrounding comments made by the founder of a “Catholic” town.

Philanthropist Tom Monaghan made comments in March 2005 at a Catholic men’s conference in Boston that he would not permit contraceptives in pharmacies or pornography on TV in the 4,000-acre town of Ave Maria near Naples. The words didn’t seem to register with the media until the groundbreaking for the development Feb. 17 of this year.

Monaghan, former Domino’s Pizza magnate, is now chancellor of Ave Maria University. Paul Marinelli is president and chief executive officer of the Barron Collier Companies, the town’s co-developers who have joined together to form Ave Maria Development.

The two went on national television networks’ morning talk shows March 3 explaining that the pornography and contraception restrictions apply only to the university, not the town.

A joint statement issued March 2 also sought to clarify the confusion and what it called a “growing misperception that Ave Maria, Fla., is to be a Catholic town, controlled by Tom Monaghan.”

The Register could not reach Monaghan for comment but spoke to Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University.

“Tom was, by his own admission, a bit over-enthusiastic with his desire to have a town that is friendly to families and reflects Catholic values,” Father Fessio said.

Commercial retailers in the town have been asked to refrain from selling contraceptives, but “no restrictions will be enforced on contraceptives or any other inventory,” according to the statement. “Neither will there be restrictions enforced on programming on cable television.”

“We will comply strictly with all federal, state and local laws. We have no power to create our own local law,” said Ave Maria University President Nicholas Healy Jr. “There will be no attempt to monitor or control what goes on in people’s homes. This is not a separate legal jurisdiction. It’s part of Collier County, the same as places like Marco Island and Naples.”

A spokesman for Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said Crist upholds “a community’s right to provide a wholesome environment, and if there’s anyone that disagrees with the practices of the community, then they have the right to go to court and present facts before a judge and for a judge to make a determination based on evidence that’s presented.”

ACLU Watching

Criticism has also ensued over whether the town, which will feature a large crucifix and Oratory at the heart of the European-inspired town center and its adjacent 1,000-acre university, is intended only for Catholics.

“Yes, Catholics would want to live there, what with a dynamic Catholic university right in the center of the town and with all of its spiritual, sacramental, cultural and academic offerings such as several daily Masses, frequent confessions, [Eucharistic] adoration, theater, music, dance and art. But the appeal is more than just to Catholics,” Healy said. “The town will be designed to be both beautiful and uplifting without the assault of immoral sensuality that you often get in some towns and neighborhoods. We want to be very clear that we’re open to people of every faith or people of no faith. There is no attempt at being discriminatory or exclusive.”

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have said they will continue to keep watch on the development of Ave Maria.

“We’re very likely going to have people come and see just how Catholic it will be. Those who don’t like this ambiance, like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, may try to test it and challenge it by trying to open offices in the town or nearby,” said Father Fessio, who added that the town and university — the first Catholic university to be built in the United States in 40 years — has also captured the attention of Pope Benedict XVI, who was Father Fessio’s former doctoral professor. When Father Fessio visited the Pope at Castelgandolfo last September, the Holy Father’s first words to him were, “How is Ave Maria?” he said.

Located on what was once agricultural land, Ave Maria has been designed to be a compact, self-sustaining town center that promotes community interaction.

The town center is designed to be walkable, and the town will feature 80 acres of lakes, parks and open space, including tennis facilities, a water park, and baseball and soccer fields. Additionally, as part of a rural environmental-stewardship program, more than 17,000 acres have been set aside to preserve the surrounding area’s natural habitats.

In all, the Barron Collier Companies own about 200,000 acres of undeveloped land in Eastern Collier County. It donated the land for the construction of Ave Maria (town and university), in addition to the land for the natural habitat.

When completed, Ave Maria will boast about 11,000 homes, ranging from close to 2,000 affordable housing units such as rental apartments and condominiums, to starter and custom estate homes. Ave Maria Development has also donated 28 acres to Habitat for Humanity to build up to 150 homes in nearby Immokalee, home to many Hispanic and Haitian farmworkers.

The university, as well as the first phase of development in Ave Maria, is expected to open in mid to late 2007. Additionally, utilities and public health and safety programs will be in place, with daily necessities such as grocery, gasoline, banking, post office and other retail facilities opening shortly thereafter.

A kindergarten through 12th-grade parochial school affiliated with the university will also be available, and land has also been provided for Collier County public elementary and middle schools.

New Urbanism

To date, the development group has leased about 60% of the town’s commercial space and has received more than 11,000 requests for information on residential properties.

“Since the groundbreaking, we have gotten 62,000 hits on our website; 22,000 were on Friday [March 3] alone, when we got all the publicity. Last year, we had a total of about 70,000 hits on our site,” said Blake Gable, vice president for real estate for the Barron Collier Companies and project manager for Ave Maria Development. “It’s going to be a nice community surrounding a Catholic university and will incorporate some of the principles of new urbanism, especially in the downtown area. People are drawn to an inclusive town based on traditional family values.”

About three years ago, Daniel Dix, a graduate student in Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology at its interim campus in Naples, was the first person to contact the Barron Collier Companies to express his interest in purchasing residential property and leasing commercial space for a coffee shop in Ave Maria’s town center, known as La Piazza.

“I like the idea of the nature of this development,” said Dix, a recent convert to Catholicism who owns Sanibel Bean coffee shop on Sanibel Island, as well as two more cafés in the Fort Myers airport. “To live in a condominium above my business in European style, that appeals to me. I don’t drink and I don’t watch sports, so to go hear someone smart [at the university] talk about something interesting, that appeals to me. The fact that my children can grow in the faith and I can send them to Catholic school or to public school, and that I even have a choice in that, that appeals to me.”

Ave Maria’s idyllic town concept is not a new one.

The “new urbanism” architectural and town-planning movement was developed in the 1980s to promote the creation and restoration of compact, dense communities with housing, work places, shops, schools, parks and civic facilities all within walking distance of each other. Although early plans and sketches for Ave Maria do not appear to strictly adhere to all new urbanism principles — partly because the town and university are a combined 5,000 acres — it does maintain some of the movement’s key features, particularly in its town center.

“New urbanism basically fosters a town planning that’s based upon human interaction in contrast to contemporary models of town urban planning based on the automobile,” said Father Mark Reeves, an architect and priest in the Archdiocese of Miami. “It reduces stress, allowing more time for people to spend with families since they’re near their workplaces. There is also tremendous environmental value because automobile emissions are reduced. People greatly desire that lifestyle.”

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, co-creator of the new urbanism movement and dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, said that founding a community on religious or moral principles is not a new concept, and is also one that can help promote diversity in a community, in that both wealthy and poor are gathered together without exclusivity.

“I really believe that a lot of the principles of development of new urbanism are aligned with religious principles,” said Plater-Zyberk. “I hope the town is working with the highest standards of new urbanists’ principles, in being socially diverse and integrated, environmentally responsible and economically sustainable.

“The new urbanism has many predecessors,” Plater-Zyberk added. “In fact, some of the 19th- century new towns in this country were called intentional communities and were religious summer settlements, like the Shakers, for instance.”

According to Father Reeves, another historical predecessor to Ave Maria also seems to have emulated some of the principles of new urbanism: Jerusalem. “It was a traditional city in which the Temple, the place of worship, was designed as the center of the community.”

Angelique Ruhi-López

writes from Miami.