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.
From Poverty to Priesthood
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."
Delivering Colossal Growth
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.
Rediscovering His Faith
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.
"This chapter in the book basically said I was just trying to impress people, and so I couldn't sleep that night," he said.
"[I] was taught that pride is the greatest of all sins, it's the source of all other sins… and when I read that I said, 'My gosh, that's the greatest of all sins and I'm the greatest sinner in the world."
Almost immediately, Monaghan sold his planes and his cars and created a foundation, donating millions of dollars to Catholic causes. He decided to focus on education, believing that most Catholic schools had also wandered from the faith.
In 1998, Monaghan sold Domino's Pizza for an estimated $1 billion. Two years later he opened the Ave Maria College near Ann Arbor, Mich. The school quickly grew, but local government would not allow any further expansion. So he began scouting for other locations. After looking at various potential sites, he settled on a former swampland in Florida, entering into a deal with a local developer.
Critics Question Monaghan's Motives
Not everyone is delighted at the prospect of a town so avowedly Catholic, especially those concerned with civil liberties.
Monaghan, who believes that abortion should be outlawed and that contraception should not be available, is often criticized for his fundamental Christian beliefs.
"What makes me so unique?" he asked.
Critics call Monaghan's views into question because few people have the resources and ability to build a university that influences the social situation in a specific direction.
"That's where the rub is. I'm dangerous," said Monaghan.
Whether the town represents a single religious denomination or not, there was no shortage of interest at a recent "open day." And Monaghan seems genuinely at peace with himself, attending Mass every day, preparing to live in the community of his dreams.
"I think I'm very happy," he said. "And when the media gets on me I just say Hail Mary for whoever wrote the article and it goes away just like that."