One is impressed immediately with the daring vision of Ave Maria, the strangely named university and new town emerging rapidly from the scrub pines and palmetto palms of rural south-west Florida. As former Chancellor Fr. Joseph Fessio (who is now Theologian -in-Residence) once quipped to some other Christians, "It's the only university whose name is taken directly from a passage in the New Testament." ("Ave Maria," of course, is Latin for "Hail, Mary!", what the angel announced to the lowly virgin betrothed of the carpenter, Joseph.)
The unusual name probably puts off some people; it sounds almost medieval and certainly very Catholic. Yet it also attracts. Here is a new physical community built around an ideal of social community. If you envision a utopian or millenarian setting of the kind that Americans attempted in the 19th century, forget it. Ave Maria is not exclusionist in any sense (an early legal aspiration to ban pornography was abandoned as impractical). Yet it does have an unmistakable Christian and Catholic sense to it. Some religious orders are sending members there and one or more may open houses. Christians may find in it a haven; others will be satisfied that it is stimulating, pretty, clean and safe.
Thomas S. Monahagn, the Domino's Pizza founder, decided a decade or more ago to spend much of his fortune on building a university that was strong on the Western scholastic tradition and clearly orthodox. He started with a law school in Michigan and hoped to develop a full university, but he ran into local zoning problems. Then, as a good entrepreneur as well as a pragmatic visionary, he decided to re-locate the university to somewhere it would be welcomed, and that turned out to be the still-capacious open country west of the Everglades and northeast of Naples.
Monaghan and his associates also saw the benefit of developing a new town around the university. The idea was to sell homesites and homes to adults who would like to pioneer living in a university town. That would provide a profit stream for the university (which will lack much of an alumni base for some time, after all), while providing a wholesome environment for students and a unique living experience for residents.
Traveling from Sarasota to Miami recently, I veered off of Interstate-29 on Florida's West Coast, taking a 15 mile detour to Ave Maria. The freeway rush yielded to standard off-ramp convenience stores, and finally woods and ranchland. Then abruptly, one has the pleasant sensation of arriving at a distinctly defined place that--like a gold rush town, but with good taste and planning--is going up so fast that in a month from now it probably will look different--and different again another month later.
There seem to be cranes and construction sites around each corner. Because the design controls are so sound, moreover, there is no sense of waste or quality erosion. About half the shops in the small downtown are either occupied or in preparation for tenants. One restaurant is open now, with three more about to appear. There are subdivisions under different developers' direction, one big golf course already in use, assorted new park and recreation facilities, a "water park," at least one school I found, and, naturally, many new university buildings.
But the beating heart of downown is the Oratory, a striking, stone and steel church whose design derives from the idea, if not the style, of a Gothic cathedral. It was just being completed when I visited. The diocesan bishop has not yet authorized dedicatory religious services, but about 800 to 1000 visitors are appearing each weekend just to look around. (Masses currently are being given in the university's Student Union Center.) In my imagination I could see that the Ave Maria Oratory is going to produce many happy memories of academic ceremonies for years to come, not to mention the diurnal doings of community masses and prayer vigils. This is a church that will be in use constantly.
A major reason the Oratory works aesthetically is its setting within a town plaza whose design might be called Florida Italian Rennaissance. If somehow an earthquake leveled a lovely northern Italian Hill Town and the people wanted to rebuild, the town plaza might be reconstructed along these lines, with the intimacy of antiquity, abetted by air conditioning and modern plumbing. Ave Maria, the town, is literally centuries away from the unhappy sprawl typical of the shopping areas of cotemporary America and the somewhat anodyne feel of many new towns. Where a community like Celebration near Disney World in Central Florida seems to pretend that religion is not entirely appropriate to its public spaces, Ave Maria puts faith at its hub. Even many of the street names evoke saints and sacred places ("Mother Teresa", "Assissi", for example). What Fr. Richard John Neuhaus bemoans as "The Naked Public Square" isn't naked in Ave Maria.
Nicholas Healy, the President of Ave Maria University, and I talked upon my return to Seattle. He explained that the University, having moved from temporary quarters in Naples, is up to 400 students this year, with 600 expected next fall. The town has about 600 residents and is adding more weekly. The population could double in another year. While developers are experiencing the same downward housing pressure as the rest the country, and especially Florida, there is still an overall forward momentum at Ave Maria because of its unique appeal.
Houses are priced at very reasonable amounts, from $225,000 "carriage homes" to spectacular $650,000 condos overlooking the plaza. I expected that many of the buyers would be snowbirds who anticipate a sun-filled college town environment with outdoor activities and a vital church life for a few months each year. But, in fact, it seems that most purchasers are moving in for year-around residency. There could well be 10,000 people in Ave Maria in another decade or so, and 40,000 eventually. When that happens, the "old" town plaza will groan with people-overload and have to be reproduced in the neighborhoods nearby. That's what happened in the Italian Rennaissance, after all.