In this sleepy corner of Collier County, where many earn a meager living by toiling in the fields or orange groves, the prospect of having a university and all that it entails -- from expanded employment opportunities to a football team -- has caused excitement. At the town meeting, attended by Monaghan, Healy, Fessio and others involved with the project, residents wondered aloud whether Immokalee, population 22,000, might boom like the much larger South Bend, Ind., home of Notre Dame.
"We're going to make sure you don't get away. We're going to take your car keys," Jim Coletta, who represents the Immokalee area on the Collier County Commission, told Ave Maria's founders.
Although the ranks of Catholics in the U.S. are increasing steadily, the last Catholic university opened in this country was Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., in 1963.
Since then, the Catholic population has grown by 10 million to 20 million, Fessio said, adding that "there is a growing percentage of Hispanics in the population."
"We think it is absolutely crucial to prepare them to take a leadership role in our society," he said. "And this university, if not at the center of the United States, is almost at the center of the Americas."
Monaghan also has bankrolled the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ave Maria College of the Americas in Nicaragua, elementary schools in the Ann Arbor area and numerous other Catholic endeavors from Central America to Austria, including an Internet dating service for Catholics.
Placed in an orphanage at age 4, Monaghan wanted to be a priest as a boy. From a single pizza parlor in Ypsilanti, Mich., Monaghan built the world's largest pizza delivery company. Since selling Domino's, he has made a public pledge to spend his fortune in propagating his faith.
"This has been a dream of mine for many, many years: to create the finest Catholic university in the world," Monaghan told the residents of Immokalee. "I didn't say the biggest. I said the finest."