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Nice article about Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida (Collier County)


Nice article about Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida (Collier County)

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It's a different world over there. Written for the Herald Tribune.

this article out of Sarasota is written about a Catholic University that is near Naples, FL

Putting faith first By Thomas Becnel

Strever, a senior from Illinois, goes to Mass every morning. Each afternoon, she prays in a dormitory chapel. In the evening, she joins rosary walks across the Collier County campus.

"Ave Maria is centered on God," Strever says, "and I want to center my life on God."

The 24-year-old theology major dresses like a nun. Long skirt, white blouse, sensible sweater. She hopes to do missionary work in Nicaragua after graduation.

Shaneyfelt, a 19-year-old freshman from Niceville, stands out in a crowd. Streaked hair, pierced eyebrow, low-cut top. Her father insisted she visit the Catholic school that she finally decided to attend.

"It was really weird at first," she says. "It's a lot more structured, but I knew that's what I needed."

Shaneyfelt, a pre-med major taking the usual math, science and history courses, has grown comfortable at Ave Maria, a brand-new university with just 600 students.

"There's a lot of different people here, but everyone's very open," she says. "Here I can share my faith with my friends. Here people go to church together."

Town and gown

The story of Ave Maria begins with Tom Monaghan, the wealthy founder of Domino's Pizza. Five years ago the Catholic philanthropist donated $250 million to build a private university and planned community near Corkscrew Swamp east of Naples.

Controversy followed when Monaghan said shops in the town would not be allowed to sell contraceptives or pornography.

The economic downturn has slowed growth in the 5,000-acre project. Empty lots flank landscaped streets. A few hundred houses have been built in a development planned for several thousand.

When the 71-year-old Monaghan visits Ave Maria, students see him running along the streets early in the morning.

"You can tell he has a lot of drive," Strever says. "They had a pizza contest once, and he taught us how to twirl the dough."

The centerpiece of the community is a massive church -- the Ave Maria Oratory -- which dominates the town square. Tourists gather on the sidewalk to snap souvenir photographs. Some wear papal T-shirts -- one says "Xtreme Papa" -- ordered at

Most of the storefronts in the square remain empty, though there is a jewelry store, a golf cart shop and a chiropractor's office. Muzak wafts over quiet sidewalks.

It was big news last month when the jewelry store was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. Paradise lost? Fear of crime proved to be fleeting, however.

People who ride to the square on bicycles still do not bother to lock them.

Faith-based fraternities

Ave Maria students gather at a coffee shop called The Bean. They enjoy wraps and fruit drinks at the Tropical Café. Coming soon will be a Publix supermarket.

The university campus, just east of the town square, opened last year. There is a library, academic mall and student union, along with a few dormitories. Plans include a new recreation center and performing arts hall.

Instead of fraternities and sororities, there are faith-based groups such as Daughters of the Little Way and Brotherhood of Divine Love. Also a Chastity Team and the St. Thomas More Debate Society.

Intramural sports include golf and cross country.

"Everyone's really into sports," says Shaneyfelt. "I play soccer and started my own flag football team."

Intercollegiate sports include golf, soccer and volleyball. The men's basketball team began competing this fall, but the head coach was dismissed before the season even started.

He was fired for swearing too much at practice. Only at Ave Maria would this be a scandal.

At the first basketball game, Grace Walker, a sacred music major from Boca Raton, sang the national anthem. The 20-year-old sophomore and her friends are busy writing the first school song.

Cheering for the Gyrenes -- a school mascot borrowed from the Marine Corps -- is part of their spirited Catholicism.

"Let's go, Ave, let's go!" Walker shouted during the game. "Whoo!"

Remote university

Besides an interest in Catholicism, Ave Maria students share one thing: a first impression of the long, long drive out to the remote campus.

"It's waaay out there," jokes Ben Liedel, a freshman from Michigan. "I didn't know if I was going to see civilization again."

The 20-mile journey begins on a six-lane highway east of Interstate 75. The road narrows to four and then two lanes that pass Corkscrew Middle School and Panther Ridge High School. Finally, there are pines and palmetto, orange groves and tomato fields, before a glimpse of the Oratory in the distance.

The nearest McDonald's is in Immokalee.

When one Ave Maria student makes a road trip, several others often pile into the car.

At the basketball game, a few hundred students and fans crowded into a tiny gym at the Ave Maria elementary school. Crayon drawings decorated the walls.

Liedel wore a T-shirt and board shorts, along with a Tupac Shakur-style bandana tied around his head.

The 19-year-old philosophy major could have been shouting "Dee-fense" at any college, if not for the 4-foot crucifix hanging behind the rim.

Students joke about Ave Maria being the furthest thing from a party school, but there are always exceptions to that rule. In September, six students were expelled for violating the school drug and alcohol policy.

It remains a conservative college. Even dating on campus is noteworthy, if not unusual.

"I've seen it," says Liedel, "but I haven't really dated anyone here."

Ave Maria students do enjoy a camaraderie that comes with starting a new school. They are pioneers on the Florida frontier of Catholic higher education.

Strever, the theology major, lived in Naples for a while, but recently moved back into a dorm. She can describe campus life in one word.

"Quiet," she says, laughing. "Very peaceful, but I enjoy it a lot here."
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Nice article about Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida (Collier County) It's a different world over there.  Written for the Herald Tribune.