We had a little “down-time” one afternoon in Naples, so Annette and Will and I decided to take a little road-trip that is probably more interesting to the folks back in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti than it is down here: we went out to Tom Monaghan’s Ave Maria University. Ypsi-Arbor folks are undoubtedly already familiar with the story: Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza in Ypsilanti way back when, is now an ultra-conservative Catholic philanthropist. I don’t know exactly how conservative, but my sense is that he’s kind of in the same camp as the “bad guys” in The Da Vinci Code.
Anyway, Monaghan started up Ave Maria University in Ypsilanti in an old elementary school building near EMU’s campus, and the Ave Maria Law School over in Ann Arbor. He wanted to build a much more elaborate campus and, as I recall it, he also wanted to build a 300+ foot cross on or near the property where Domino Farms is located. Ann Arbor said there was no way they would allow those zoning changes. So Monaghan picked up and went to Florida, where there are no zoning laws for all practical purposes. As this 2006 article in The Independent put it, “if all goes to plan, the first of its 11,000 brand new homes will be ready for residents late next year. So too, at the city’s heart, will be a new university, which hopes to become home to 5,000 fresh-faced – and hopefully devout – undergraduates.”
Many controversies and a bad economy has made this not come to pass, at least as far as we could tell.
Our journey began first with the drive; here’s a map (and all these images are available via this Flickr set):
I think this map illustrates something that Annette and Will and I learned early in our travels out to Ave Maria: it is in the middle of nowhere, and that’s saying something for southern Florida where there is quite a bit of “middle of nowhere.” Around Ave Maria, which is down Oil Well Road, are a combination of produce farms and Everglades scrub.
After passing through the front gate (pictured above), we drove a while through wetlands being reclaimed by the Ave Maria folks and lots of pretty much empty (possibly future) neighborhood developments. Then we came to the “Park of Commerce:”
Not a lot happening there. We did something that looked like a gas station/convenience store under construction.
A little more driving and we came across this:
Annette immediately recognized this Santa w/ Jesus from the light show they used to have at Domino Farms; I guess they shipped this light display south. Sadly, it wasn’t lit for us.
A little more driving, and finally we got to the “town center,” which of course features a church:
From the outside, I think it looks like a hanger for a blimp with masonry on either side of it. The inside is pretty simple at this point, though it’s clearly a work in progress, too:
The arches were pretty cool, but notice the kind of alien-like/Frank Lloyd Wright-like lights.
The Cathedral/church is in the middle of a sort of faux town square, the “business district” if you will:
As far as I could tell, the open businesses included the Ave Maria U. book store, a dress shop, a coffee shop, a smoothie shop, some kind of jewlery shop, a couple of real estate places trying to sell lots in empty Ave Maria developments, a freaky toy/home schooling store, and a surprisingly cool-looking bike shop.
One of the major controversies of Ave Maria-town was (and I guess remains) that Monaghan did not want to have any businesses that sold contraceptives; since that’s pretty standard fare for drug stores and grocery stores, there was none of that in “town” when we were there– though to be fair, there was a “coming soon” sign in front of a store advertising Publix, an area grocery store chain.
Oh, and I don’t know why, but I found this kind of funny:
If you park overnight near the corner of Annunciation Circle and John Paul II Way, you’re gonna get towed.
The Ave Maria University campus is pretty much across the street, and it too is a work in progress. Basically, you’ve got three or four large buildings that look like this:
(By the way, what is the deal with Monaghan and Frank Lloyd Wright designs?)
And you’ve got a number of signs that look like this:
That’s pretty much it.
Our overall impressions? I think terms like “creepy” and “strange” and bizarre” come to mind. Granted, we weren’t there very long, but I honestly don’t think we saw more than two dozen people in an hour of driving around. I mean, it was a whole lot of nothing, and what was there seemed awfully repressed, even for Catholic standards.
But time will be the test here. I am hoping that we can make the trip back there in about five years and see what’s there. Will it be the thriving dream of Catholic orthodoxy in the swamp? Or it will it be, um, swamp?