AVE MARIA, Fla. -- America's newest town is rising up in the midst of a dusty tomato field in southwest Florida. And if the Catholics building it have their way, this ultraconservative community with a 65-foot crucifix at its center will be the closest thing to heaven on Earth.
They envision a town that adheres to strict religious values, a place devoid of adult bookstores, strip clubs, massage parlors and abortion clinics. At one time they had planned to prohibit the sale of contraceptives at drugstores and to bar X-rated channels from cable television. But the law got in the way.
The town, to be anchored by a new Roman Catholic university, is mostly the vision of Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, a devout Catholic who is pouring $400 million of his personal fortune into the project. Insisting that he is doing God's will, Monaghan, who is well known in conservative political and religious circles, has staked his reputation on the controversial project, the latest of his many philanthropic ventures designed to spread conservative Christian values around the world.
At this point the town of Ave Maria, about 30 miles northeast of Naples, is nothing more than 5,000 acres of leveled dirt, a row of cinder-block building frames and a small cornerstone marking the site where a church will stand. But by the time the first phase is completed next spring, developers said, Ave Maria will be a full-fledged town filled with Catholics and non-Catholics.
"This is the most important thing I can do with what God gave me, and I've got a lot of making up to do," said Monaghan, 69, who spent most of his childhood raised by nuns in Catholic orphanages and later became a self-made billionaire. "God gave me a lot and showed me it is not impossible to use it to help people get to heaven."
Monaghan said his primary goal is the construction of Ave Maria University, whose $200 million campus will include the Oratory of Ave Maria. The church, which will hold about 1,100 people, will stand near a 65-foot crucifix.
While the town is not restricted to Catholics, its planners concede that it probably will appeal to those who support its strict religious values. Still, they said, they are working to make it inclusive.
"This will be an entertainment-driven area and a fast-growing community," said Blake Gable, vice president of Barron Collier Co., which donated the land and is overseeing construction of the town. "At the end of the day, there will be 25,000 residents and 5,000 students, all with differing beliefs."
Monaghan drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics last year when he said in a speech that he would not allow stores that sell pornography or dispense contraceptives, including condoms, to operate in the town. In recent weeks, after lawyers warned that the plan was unconstitutional, Monaghan and Barron Collier chief executive Paul Marinelli have traveled the country in a public-relations blitz to clarify the statements.
"I prefer not to have those things, but I am not going to break the law," said Monaghan, who also owns a Catholic newspaper and a radio station in Naples.
While Monaghan said planners are only requesting that contraceptives not be sold in the town, they will have control over what will be available on campus to Ave Maria students. Naples Community Hospital plans to open a clinic in the town and has agreed not to provide contraceptives to students, said hospital spokesman Edgardo Tenreiro.
Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, said there is no problem with people of like mind creating a community. He said problems arise when there is no separation between religion and government, which is clearly outlined in the Constitution.
"This is not just about the sale of contraceptives in the local pharmacy, it is about whether in an incorporated town there will be a fusion of religion and government. It is a question of whether not just people living there but others who use the facilities, make purchases in the pharmacy and attend public schools will be required to live by religious rule," Simon said.
Over the next decade, more than 11,000 homes will be built, including condominiums, low-income housing and luxury estates, many of which will cost less than the $491,000 median home price in the county. Gable said about 20 businesses have committed to the town.
The Naples area was not Monaghan's first choice. He had planned to build the campus in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., but zoning officials turned down his request.
His proposal was welcomed in conservative Collier County. At the groundbreaking last year, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush called Ave Maria a community where "spirituality and serving almighty God is the centerpiece of our day-to-day life."
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.