Jul 23, 2007

Ave Maria Not Just for Catholics

Brian Skoloff
ashington Post
July 23, 2007 

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) -- No, of course not, Ave Maria is not a Roman Catholic town, its builders say. Why would you think such a thing?

Yes, the streets have names like Annunciation Circle and John Paul II Boulevard. The town is laid out to catch the sunrise at a certain angle each March 25, the day Catholics celebrate the Feast of Annunciation. And the Catholic university whose towering 10-story church dominates the landscape bans the sale of condoms and warns that premarital sex can be grounds for expulsion.

But Ave Maria is open to everyone, said Blake Gable, project manager for the Barron Collier Cos., which is building the new town in partnership with Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, an ardent Catholic.

"When I lived in Washington, D.C., I looked out my window and I saw the National Cathedral. I didn't feel like I was in a religious environment," Gable said. "It's never occurred to me that it's a Catholic community."

The builders of Ave Maria, whose name is Latin for Hail Mary, have been struggling to get the message out that anyone can live here ever since Monaghan's headline-grabbing comments in 2005, when the site was still just a sod farm. Monaghan told a Catholic group at the time that the town would be governed by Roman Catholic principles. He said stores wouldn't carry contraceptives or pornography, and cable TV would have no adult channels.

In response, a Wall Street Journal opinion column quoted a critic of Ave Maria as calling it a "Catholic Jonestown." The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida threatened to sue. Critics called it un-American. And Monaghan backed off.

Monaghan now says that Ave Maria University, the school he is also bankrolling, will follow strict Catholic guidelines, but the town will be largely allowed to grow uninhibited _ except for no adult novelty stores or topless clubs. The developers say they will merely suggest that merchants not sell contraceptives or porn, and cable TV offerings will not be restricted.

Even with that, Monaghan seems disappointed. If he had his way, Ave Maria would be God's town.

"I thought we owned the real estate, so we can lease to whoever we want and put things in the contract, but there are laws and there were lawsuits out there," Monaghan said.

The developers say that they will allow any denomination to build a house of worship in Ave Maria, and that gays are welcome, too.

In fact, the Web site for the town and university makes no mention of Catholicism at all, not even noting that the school will be Catholic.

"Ave Maria reinvents hometown living with a flourishing new community complementing a new university," the site says. "Ave Maria is an exciting place to live, work, play and learn for every family, every lifestyle and every dream."

Monaghan has spent more than $200 million building the school, which opens next month and hopes to attract 5,500 students. It is the first Catholic university built in the United States in four decades. Gable and Monaghan repeatedly note that the university and town are two separate entities.

But the school's 1,100-seat church will be the undisputed focal point of the community, with the town center wrapping around it like a pastel-colored Italian village with overhanging balconies, verandas and glass storefronts.

Ave Maria University President Nicholas Healy Jr. said the school would "encourage students to live a Catholic moral life."

"At a number of schools, there's a problem with binge drinking or recreational sex," Healy said. "We don't permit that. ... It would be a very serious violation. We teach what the Catholic church teaches, and the Catholic church teaches that contraception is a grave moral evil and we accept that."

Barron Collier has spent about $200 million constructing the town and aims to house more than 20,000 residents. Gable said sales have exceeded expectations, with about 250 homes sold since February, though just a few of those people have moved in.

As for whether Jews or others might be uncomfortable living in a town called Ave Maria, he said: "Do people who live in San Francisco feel offended? San Antonio?"

New York retirees Henry and Roseann Knetter moved into their home about a month ago. As Catholics, the religion aspect was a big draw.

"It just appeared to be a really nice concept with the church in town," said Roseann Knetter, 64.

But they said it wasn't just religion that attracted them.

"We wanted to be in a town that was going to grow up from its grass roots," Knetter said.