[Update, July 21, 2007: Catholic town opens in Florida]
A former marine who was raised by nuns and made a fortune selling pizza has embarked on a £230m plan to build the first town in America to be run according to strict Catholic principles.
Abortions, pornography and contraceptives will be banned in the new Florida town of Ave Maria, which has begun to take shape on former vegetable farms 90 miles northwest of Miami.
Tom Monaghan, the founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain, has stirred protests from civil rights activists by declaring that Ave Maria’s pharmacies will not be allowed to sell condoms or birth control pills. The town’s cable television network will carry no X-rated channels.
The town will be centred around a 100ft tall oratory and the first Catholic university to be built in America for 40 years. The university’s president, Nicholas J Healy, has said future students should “help rebuild the city of God” in a country suffering from “catastrophic cultural collapse”.
Monaghan, 68, sold his takeaway chain in 1998 for an estimated $1 billion (?573m). A devout Catholic who has ploughed millions into religious projects — including radio stations, primary schools and a Catholic law faculty in Michigan — Monaghan has bought about 5,000 acres previously used by migrant farmers.
The land on the western edge of the Everglades swamp will eventually house up to 30,000 people, with 5,000 students living on the university campus. Florida officials have declared the project a development bonanza for a depressed area, and Governor Jeb Bush attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the new university earlier this month.
Yet civil rights activists and other watchdogs concerned about the separation of church and state are threatening lawsuits if Ave Maria attempts to enforce Catholic dogma. Environmentalists have also complained the town will restrict the habitat of the Florida panther, an endangered species.
None of which has deterred Monaghan, who initially tried to build his new university in Michigan but could not get permission. Asked recently about possible lawsuits in Florida, he replied: “That’s great. That would be the best publicity we could get.”
The Florida developers managing the project claim more than 7,000 people have already expressed interest in buying homes in the town. Retailers and other businesses are reportedly close to leasing 60% of the intended commercial space.
Monaghan was sent to a Catholic orphanage with his brother James after the death of their father on Christmas Eve 1941. After serving with the US Marines and later dropping out of university, he founded Domino’s in 1960 with his brother, who sold back his share for a Volkswagen Beetle.
Monaghan then set about building what became America’s second-largest pizza chain. He collected antique cars, bought a yacht and became the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
About 15 years ago he read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. “That was a big turnaround,” he said recently. “I decided to simplify my life. No more airplanes, no more yachts. It’s been a big relief.”
Sources close to the project said Monaghan was particularly disturbed by what he regards as the failure of western civilisation to resist Islamic fundamentalism. In a speech to students last year Healy warned that Islam “no longer faces a religiously dynamic West”.
Healy described the “virtual collapse of Europe” as “one of the most profound and unsettling developments of our new century”. He added: “If you consider the more telling signs, such as its plummeting birth rate, Europe does not even seem to believe in a future . . . children are a sign of hope and the fruit of obedience to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.”
Monaghan has argued that the owners of the town’s commercial properties will be free to impose conditions in leases — notably the restriction on the sale of contraceptives. But that has been challenged by Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Simon said the US Supreme Court had already ruled “ownership [of a town] does not always mean absolute dominion”. “If he wants to build a town and encourage like-minded people to come and live there, that’s fine. We get into problems where he tries to exercise governmental authority.”
Frances Kissling, president of a liberal Catholic group supporting women’s rights to contraception and abortion, said the idea of a Catholic town was “very disturbing”.
“We have to learn to tolerate the fact that there are other religions — as well as non-believers — and the interplay of cultures helps make each of us more productive members of society. A Catholic-only town goes totally against that.”
Lawsuits appear inevitable once the new town begins functioning in 2007, but Monaghan believes he has more than the law on his side. “I think it’s God’s will to do this,” he said.
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