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The separation of church and town a focal point for founders of Ave Maria

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“Ave Maria is not a Catholic town.”

The separation of church and town a focal point for founders of Ave Maria

By Jennifer Brannock

Saturday, August 18, 2007

“Ave Maria is not a Catholic town.”

Chris Ortega, an Ave Maria University student in the Pre Theologate program, left, leads a procession around the future site of Ave Maria University off Camp Keais Road near Immokalee in 2005. Clergy, faculty and lay supporters gathered to celebrate the first Mass at the site on the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the well-rehearsed line, articulated by town developers Barron Collier Cos., has become ingrained in pitches to prospective home and business owners, and members of the local and national media.

To believe it, visitors to the newly opened 5,000-acre town must ignore the town’s name, Latin for “Hail, Mary.”

Drivers and pedestrians should regard street names, such as Pope John Paul II Boulevard and Annunciation Circle, as clever brand names, adding theme, not tone, to the town.

At Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., where the school initially was planned to be located, the line draws eye rolls and snickers from former professors and students. At Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., students and teachers who are scheduled to inhabit Ave Maria in 2009 scoff at the notion.

“Utopia never works,” recent Ave Maria School of Law graduate Andrew Doran said. “You never learn anything from someone who agrees with you.”

To see past the religious overtones of the town, one must overlook the town’s focal feature. A 100-foot-tall steel-beamed oratory, topped with a 10-foot Celtic cross that is visible for miles, is positioned squarely in the town center, aptly named “La Piazza.”

The oratory, a Catholic place of prayer, was the genesis of town founder Tom Monaghan’s vision, which was launched from a crude drawing on a paper napkin to reality in just five years. In that space, Chancellor Monaghan’s Ave Maria University students will receive large portions of their stringent Catholic education a few months after the school opens Aug. 27.

It was the former Domino’s Pizza mogul who was at the center of controversy when questions arose in 2005 whether the town would adhere to Catholic doctrine and would ban contraceptives and pornography. The possibility prompted denials from his partners at Barron Collier and swift retribution from the American Civil Liberties Union, leading to the now popularized party line denying the town’s religious leanings.

“It’s not really government establishment of religion, but it’s religious establishment of government,” said Becky Steele, religious freedom program director for Florida’s ACLU. “That’s an issue because of that pesky thing called the First Amendment.”

Steele said the ACLU will continue to monitor the town’s development. Coincidence or not — Steele wouldn’t say — the ACLU opened a Collier County branch in May.

As for Monaghan, he now backpedals when speaking of the town’s God-fearing foundation.

“A lot has been said and written about my so-called wanting to control the town and the way people live there,” he said. “I think a lot of people assume that if I have the power to, I’m going to do it.

“But my focus is on the university. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the town, the chips fall where they may.”

In the beginning

If the goal of Ave Maria isn’t Catholic utopia, what is it?

“I see the town being one of Naples’ more family-friendly communities, and I’m very excited about that,” said Paul Marinelli, president and chief executive officer for Barron Collier Cos. “I envision it being a community where neighbors look after neighbors, where people care for one another.”

Marinelli got on the elevator to heaven at the ground floor. After reading about Monaghan’s failed attempts in 2002 to obtain zoning approvals for a university on his Domino’s Farms property in Ann Arbor, Marinelli made a historic phone call.

“We were just completing the rural land stewardship program, which enabled the development of the lands in eastern Collier County, and we were looking for a catalyst to start a new town,” Marinelli explained. “It just dawned on me that a new Catholic university would make a great catalyst.”

Monaghan and Marinelli struck a deal that included a donation of 900 acres by Barron Collier Co., and the joint development of the town and university. Marinelli set the town plans in motion, contracting with residential developer Pulte Homes to construct about 75 percent of Ave Maria’s planned 11,000 homes.

Pulte is working with developers from Del Webb and DiVosta Homes to construct four communities, each geared toward demographic groups, such as senior citizens and families. More than 300 affordable housing townhomes also will be available in the Middlebrooke community, starting at about $170,000.

About 250 homes have been claimed by future residents, Marinelli said. Three families moved into the first homes in the Hampton Village community in May.

Seventy luxury condominiums will be sold above businesses in La Piazza, which, so far, includes a coffee shop, restaurant and a handful of office spaces.

By 2025, about 2 million square feet of commercial space will exist in Ave Maria, Marinelli said.

About 200,000 square feet is spoken for, as unnamed gas station, grocery store and convenience store owners finalize deals to inhabit the town.

“What we developed is a lot nicer than I ever envisioned five years ago,” Marinelli said.

“Thousands of people’s fingerprints have been on Ave Maria. It was a lot of the citizens of Collier County coming together to make it a reality, and I’m proud of where we are.”
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The separation of church and town a focal point for founders of Ave Maria “Ave Maria is not a Catholic town.”