A one-time wilderness in Florida is being transformed into the Promised Land. A buccaneering businessman with strong Catholic values wants to build a new community from scratch.
Tom Monaghan, founder of the worldwide Domino's Pizza chain, is sinking his billion-dollar fortune into a new town called Ave Maria, a joint venture with a local developer. It will number 11,000 new homes and, unsurprisingly for a man who opposes abortion, contraception and homosexuality, at the summit of this planned community is not a golf course but a church.
"It'll seat about 1,100 people, including the choir loft," Monaghan said of the church, "and there'll be seating for about 25 priests that can celebrate a mass."
Across the road from the church is Monaghan's other singular contribution to the development, a new Catholic university that will house over 5,000 students.
"We need a new kind of Catholic school with an emphasis on combining excellence in spiritual aspect and also excellence in education," he said.
So what prompted this 70-year-old entrepreneur to pursue his dream of building a kind of Catholic heaven on 5,000 acres of earth?
It may be because Tom Monaghan has been searching for a community like Ave Maria for most of his life. He was born in March 1937 into a poor family of unskilled workers -- his mother a domestic servant, his father (and hero) a truck driver.
"I was so poor, and I was always conscious of what other kids had," he said. "I had to scrape the manure off my shoes when I went to school and I had to keep my feet on the floor so you couldn't see the soles of my shoes."
By 10th grade, Monaghan had decided to join the priesthood and was accepted into seminary, but he lasted less than a year.
"[The] rector said I didn't have a vocation… so he said, 'Tom, when you're packing your bags for Easter, pack them for good.' And I cried," Monaghan recalled. "I was crushed 'cause I thought I was more interested in being a priest than almost every kid in that seminary."
Monaghan decided to take his future into his own hands. An opportunity arose to buy a pizza business for $500 in Ypsilanti, Mich., close to where he grew up.
After buying that first store, Monaghan soon discovered a gaping hole in the pizza business of the 1960s -- a gap that he was eager to fill.
"I was the first one to focus on delivery," he said. "There were places that delivered but they did it because they had to. I was the first person to do it because I wanted to. I was excited about the idea of delivery. I saw the potential of the convenience of it for people, and I thought it could be built into a big business."
He wasn't wrong. From 1960 to 1980, Monaghan opened 300 Domino's Pizza delivery stores.
"[In] 1980 we took off like a rocket and went from 300 to 5,000 stores in 10 years," he said. "It was the fastest growth in the history of the restaurant industry."
The boy who once had holes in his socks could now afford diamonds on the soles of his shoes. And he started spending serious money. At one time, he even owned eight planes.
The spending spree lasted six years, until 1989, when one quiet evening, Monaghan read "Mere Christianity" by the British scholar C.S. Lewis and had a sudden revelation.