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Pizza Magnate Has University Plan Cooking

Florida campus would be home to the nation's first new Catholic campus in a generation. A 'spiritual military academy' is the vision.

December 16, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

IMMOKALEE, Fla. — On pool-table flat farmland where peppers, tomatoes and sod have been grown, Thomas S. Monaghan, onetime fast-food magnate, is pursuing what may be the last phase of his life's work: the saving of souls.

"My No. 1 priority now is to help as many people get to heaven as possible," said the 65-year-old founder of Domino's Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers. "I believe the best way to do that is education."

The result, if Monaghan's vision and an artist's conceptions are translated into reality, will be the first new Roman Catholic university in the United States in a generation, built from scratch on what is now rich agricultural land near the Everglades of southwestern Florida.

Conceived at a time of unprecedented trial for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, Ave Maria University will not be your typical Catholic institution of higher learning, Monaghan said.

Instead, the bespectacled, quiet philanthropist envisions a "spiritual military academy," built in the Frank Lloyd Wright style and dispensing a rigorous, faith-centered and tradition-minded education to as many as 5,000 committed Catholics. He is willing to put up at least $220 million of his fortune to build it.

According to Monaghan, polls indicate that many students who graduate from existing Catholic colleges and universities leave with their religious faith shakier than when they entered. Many of the schools also have a reputation, warranted or not, as "party schools," he said.

Under pressure from the Vatican, changes in demographics and the decline in young men entering the priesthood, many Catholic educational institutions in the United States have been forced in recent years to ponder exactly what makes them "Catholic," said Stephen Fowl, a professor at Loyola College in Maryland.

The venerable Baltimore college is an eloquent example. Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1852, it now has only 10 Jesuit priests on its 250-member tenured faculty. "There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, and not enough priests to staff them," Fowl said. Although an Episcopalian, he is chairman of Loyola's theology department.

Since 2000, a majority of the country's 230 Catholic institutions of higher learning have no longer been run by priests, in part because there are not enough of them, said Michael James, assistant executive director of the Assn. of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "We're not seeing growth in the religious orders, in [priestly] vocations," he said.

Many colleges and universities affiliated with the church, Monaghan said, "don't emphasize the spiritual enough." That is why he wants to start a university from the ground up, rather than make a gift to an established school.

"I think only 10% of Catholics would be interested in our school," Monaghan said. "Those who make faith the center of their lives."

Monaghan has been a lodestone for conservative Catholic causes, and he has drawn criticism for implying that church institutions he does not endorse are somehow less holy. Monaghan's plan for a new university "is certainly of a grandiose scale and vision, and will be interesting to watch," James said.

Under a joint venture, the Naples-based Barron Collier Cos., a powerhouse landowner and developer in this corner of Florida, will donate 750 acres for the university site, and it will be a partner in developing a town, also to be called Ave Maria, that is to be built around the school.

The university's president-designate, Nicholas J. Healy Jr., a Catholic layman and former attorney in maritime law, said it likely will open in four years.

A temporary campus is being built outside the city of Naples, and it should begin accepting students in the autumn of 2003. Ave Maria University will be coed, but the dorms will not.

The university president said that rap music, heavy metal and modern art that does not elevate the soul or adhere to the Catholic aesthetic of promoting beauty and truth will have no place in Ave Maria's curriculum. The university's name, Latin for "Hail Mary," is the biblical greeting spoken by the archangel Gabriel when he announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.

In 1998, the same year that Monaghan sold Domino's for a reported $1 billion, he opened a Catholic college in Ypsilanti, Mich. He wanted to move it to Ann Arbor and expand it into a full-fledged university, but he had to look for a new location after planners and politicians turned down his request for a zoning change.

The Florida site, about 10 miles southeast of this rural town, was selected when the developer offered to donate the land. The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit who will be the university's chancellor, deadpanned during a town meeting here last week that he saw a sign from God in the choice. Immokalee, he said, is akin to a word for Mary that he learned while in a French seminary: immaculee, or she who is free of the blemish of sin.

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