IMMOKALEE – Near the magnificent new church on the Ave Maria University campus, sculptor Marton Varo chips away at 80 tons of the best white marble money can buy, direct from the same Italian quarry where Michelangelo used to get his.
The $3 million, 35-foot-tall bas-relief sculpture depicts The Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she will bear the son of God. The work will someday adorn the facade of the 10-story Ave Maria Oratory, around which a modern campus and college town have materialized in quick time on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
The recession has a stranglehold on much of southwest Florida, but billionaire Thomas Monaghan’s vision for the 1,100-seat church and the Roman Catholic school he created continues to take shape, even if construction is not progressing as quickly as he had hoped.
The 72-year-old founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain had hoped to have a gym built for the basketball team by now. He and the town’s developer also expected to see more than the 300 or so houses and condos that have gone up, and more restaurants and stores open in the town center surrounding the towering church.
And plans to erect one of the largest freestanding crucifixes in the world — 65 feet tall, with a 40-foot body of Christ — on the church grounds had to be put on hold.
“Our timing has been terrible,” Monaghan said during an interview in his office in the university library, a copper-roofed structure in the classic Frank Lloyd Wright style he favors. “But we’re pretty well-heeled, so we’re able to absorb it, and we just cut back.”
Considering these were far-flung fields of tomatoes and sod just three years ago, there has been great progress. Monaghan, who holds the title of university chancellor, figures he has put more than $400 million of his pizza fortune into developing what he likes to call a “spiritual military academy” amid a new town steeped in conservative Catholic teaching and symbolism.
Monaghan made headlines before the first shovel of dirt was turned, saying that stores in Ave Maria would be prohibited from selling contraceptives and pornography, and the cable TV system would not carry adult movies. He backed off after civil rights advocates raised a stink, but says he hopes those things will remain unavailable here.
A large classroom building, library, three residence halls and student union with dining hall accommodate 697 students this year, up from 367 when the doors opened in fall 2007. School officials say enrollment could top 900 this fall.
Another large dorm is under construction on the 11/2-square-mile campus, and in the next few years the gym and another student union/classroom building will go up. An arts center, administration building and auditorium are all on the drawing board. An affiliated law school scheduled to open in Naples this fall eventually will relocate to the campus.
The effects of the sagging economy are evident, though, in the vacant lots and unfinished streets around the campus, where about 1,000 residents have moved into houses whose starting prices have dipped to the low $100,000s. And plenty of storefronts are empty in the quiet, Italian-inspired town center.
But a trendy coffee house called The Bean is open. So is a smoothie bar, jewelry store, bike shop, florist, medical clinic and dentist’s office.
And a sure sign of civilization in Florida — a Publix grocery store — is under construction a block away on Pope John Paul II Boulevard.
The church, which grew out of a design Monaghan sketched out on a restaurant tablecloth during dinner with friends, has become a minor tourist attraction, competing with the glitzy Seminole Indian casino 15 minutes away in Immokalee.
Monaghan and developer Barron Collier Cos., which donated the land for the campus to persuade him to build here, still believe Ave Maria will grow in the next two decades to fulfill initial expectations: 5,500 students living in a bustling town of 25,000 residents.
“I don’t have any concerns at all about where we are,” says Blake Gable, the project manager for Barron Collier. “Everything that we did here was taking a look at this community where it sits 50 years from now, not today.”
After Monaghan made his fortune as a pioneer in the pizza delivery business, he shed Domino’s to dedicate his life to Catholic philanthropy. In 1998, he founded tiny Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich. When local planners rejected his proposal for a campus on his Domino’s Farms property in Ann Arbor, he looked to Florida.
He zeroed in on the Naples area because it was, before the economy collapsed, the fastest-growing region and Florida was one of the fastest-growing states in the South, where there were few existing Catholic colleges.
“I thought it would be the easiest place in the country to attract students from all over the country,” says Monaghan, who lives part time in a campus dorm. “And that seems to have worked out. We started out last year with students from all 50 states, as small as we were.”
Monaghan proudly notes that a dozen men from last year’s group moved on to study at seminaries.
Students talk up the fairly easy access to the Naples and Fort Myers metro areas, and extracurricular offerings from rugby clubs to outreach in the migrant worker community of Immokalee. One campus group organizes sidewalk demonstrations at an abortion clinic.