AVE MARIA — On a blazingly bright March morning, hundreds of prospective home buyers flocked to a remote 5,000-acre construction site in southwest Florida, where a year ago there was little more than tomato fields, orange groves and peppers.
Visitors, mostly older couples, many Catholic, many from out of state, wandered through model homes, chatted with sales reps over bottled water and cookies, took trolley tours of the construction site, and snapped cellphone pictures of a 100-foot-high cathedral that dominates the town’s center.
They were getting one of the first public glimpses of Ave Maria — ”Hail Mary” in Latin — a new Florida town unlike any other in the United States.
It’s being created by Domino’s Pizza multimillionaire Thomas Monaghan, who five years ago envisioned a community that would draw residents who share traditional Catholic values.
”I was curious to see what it was all about,” said Richard Tyerech, 68, a retired marketer of architectural products who lives in Naples, 30 miles away. “It’s great that they can espouse the principles of Catholicism. It’s a great place for a Catholic to live.”
Supporters — including former Gov. Jeb Bush and Pope Benedict XVI — say Monaghan’s new town will strengthen American Catholicism. Detractors have slammed Ave Maria as ”Disney World for Catholics” and “country-club Christianity.”
Yet, for those scouting for new homes amid the grind and whine of construction crews here, Ave Maria looks like any other fresh Florida development.
Promotional materials promise roomy homes, which range from about $170,000 to the high $600,000s, by builders Pulte, DiVosta and Del Webb; a commercial center with offices, shops, a Mexican restaurant, coffee shop, pub and ice-cream parlor; schools, parks, a golf course, fitness center and water park.
The nearby Immokalee fire district will provide fire rescue; the Collier County sheriff’s deparment will oversee law enforcement. Collier County will provide emergency medical services, and Naples Community Hospital will open a clinic.
”This isn’t going ahead and creating your own Catholic America, this is being Catholics in America,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, vice president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “It’d be great if we had five [such cities] in the nation, not just one.”
Before the foundations for Ave Maria were even paved, Monaghan softened his initial commandments for the Collier County town, backing away from claims that it would ban birth control, pornography and abortion.
Still, crowds have come to look, and at least 200 people have bought homes since sales began in January, with the first of a projected 25,000 residents expected to move in this summer. About 5,800 people have taken the weekly trolley tours since February, according to a spokeswoman for Barron Collier Cos., the town’s developer.
”The university is Catholic; the community is going to be everybody,” said Blake Gable, vice president of real estate for Barron Collier and project manager for Ave Maria. “The cable, Comcast, is the exact same as everywhere. The commercial lease is the same as everywhere.”
But the town’s Catholic character remains unmistakable.
Midway through a recent tour, the trolley driver pulled up next to the massive cathedral, which is expected to seat 1,100 and showcase a $1.8 million pipe organ from Italy. The first Mass is scheduled for Christmas Eve this year, the driver said.
The trolley passed streets named Avila and Assisi, a tribute to Catholic saints, and idled near the copper-roofed buildings of Ave Maria University, where men and women will live in separate dormitories, Latin will be mandatory, and students can study Gregorian chant.
Monaghan has said his goal is “to help as many people as possible get to heaven.”
Ave Maria, which has been nearly $400 million in the making, has met with controversy at nearly every stage.
Defenders of Wildlife objected to the town’s location, which the organization says encroaches on the habitat of the endangered Florida panther. Last month, the group threatened to file a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers for approving the project.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and other groups have criticized Monaghan for what they say is his attempt to impose his conservative religious ideology on residents.
”This is not a debate about whether people who are of similar religious or ethnic or racial background have a right to live in the same community,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
“The issue is: Will the laws of the community be reflective of religious dogma and thereby end up restricting the rights of people who are religious minorities in the community?”
Monaghan, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has said that the town will be open to people of all faiths, and that the ban on birth control applies only to the university, although the town will ban strip clubs and adult bookstores — something other Florida cities already do. As a special district within Collier County, Ave Maria will oversee its own roads and other infrastructure but will be subject to the county’s laws.
Collier County officials, who approved the project in 2005, have been supportive. Some have said the town will help revitalize the area surrounding Immokalee, a corner of the county that is populated largely by farmworkers.
”The feeling is that it will be an asset to the Immokalee area,” said Collier County spokesman John Torre.
Critics of Monaghan’s conservative brand of Catholicism remain skeptical.
Jon O’Brien, president of the organization Catholics for a Free Choice, which supports abortion rights and access to birth control, said Monaghan’s views are out of step with those of most American Catholics.
”If you look at the polls of the opinions of Catholics over the years, you find that the views of most couldn’t be further than Monaghan’s,” he said.
Burt and Barbara Neal, Catholics from Cleveland who were visiting Naples, said that they, too, were skeptical that a town populated mostly by Catholics would accommodate everyone.
”I’m afraid it would take on a religious character, almost like a cultlike environment where you’re expected to believe in a certain way and to go to certain kinds of Mass,” Neal said after touring one of Ave Maria’s model homes.
While much of the public outcry has been directed at the town, Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law have had their share of controversy recently.
Last month, students and professors at the law school criticized the decision to move the school from Michigan to the Florida town by 2009. One professor resigned in protest.
Last Wednesday, Monaghan dismissed the university provost, the Rev. Joseph Fessio, ”as a result of irreconcilable differences over administrative policies,” according to a statement from the university.
Fessio, a prominent theologian and longtime friend of Pope Benedict XVI, was dismissed shortly after his comments suggesting that homosexuality has biological roots appeared in the California Catholic Daily, but was rehired a day later as a ”theologian in residence.” University officials, who released a statement Thursday night, would not comment further on the incident.
Controversy surrounding the town of Ave Maria seems to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of prospective buyers, however.
`PART OF A LEGACY’
Roberto DePalo, 30, who lives in New Jersey and works in the pharmaceutical industry, recently bought a three-bedroom house priced at $347,900 with his wife, Giovanna DePalo.
The couple said they were drawn to the idea of a community guided by Catholic principles.
”There’s nothing like this in the United States. We’re going to be part of a legacy,” said DePalo, who plans to move in in September. “You can’t go wrong living in a community where all the streets are named after saints.”