Ave Maria Town: Roman Catholic and…un-American?

Ave Maria Chapel.jpgAve Maria Town in southern Florida is the newly-constructed enclave of pure-land Catholicism founded and funded by former pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, and it has drawn its fair share of criticism since construction began in 2005. Even many conservatives are uneasy with the throwback Catholicism that Mongahan wants to recreate in a soup-to-nuts, town-and-gown town that features a “traditional” university–but one that tried to fire the Ratzinger protege and blue-ribbon conservative, Jesuit Fr. Joe Fessio. (Student and other protests led to his re-hiring.)


Early reports were that Monaghan and his development partners would ban anything un-Catholic, like porn and cable TV–and non-Catholic residents–though those strictures were apparently overstated.

Now, a well-reported and well-written investigative piece by the local paper, The Naples Daily News, has uncovered a disturbing legal twist to Ave Maria–namely, that its own residents have no say in their own affairs because the five-member board will be controlled in perpetuity by Monaghan and the developer, Barron Collier:

When Kathy Delaney moved a year and a half ago with her two teenage sons from Maryland to Ave Maria, she believed certain rights remained unalienable.

Elections, she thought, followed the rule she’d known all her life: Her vote counted as much as anyone’s. Delaney could only assume the government of her new town operated the same.


“I was even thinking, wouldn’t it be great,” Delaney said. “We could actually have our own mayor.”

Actually, no. When Monaghan et al started the development on 11,000 acres of former farm fields they also wrote and lobbied for a state law–that passed–allowing them unique power to control the town forever through a five-member board on which they would always have a majority. As the story relates:

The law gives Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos. more power than any Florida developer in at least 24 years, power perhaps not seen since the days of the early 20th century land boom. The law makes landowners, not registered voters, the ultimate authority in Ave Maria. The law ensures Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., as the largest landowners, can control Ave Maria’s government forever.


“I thought at some point we would be able to have a say in how the town ran,” Delaney said when approached by the Daily News and shown the government’s structure.

The series, “Ave Maria – A Town Without a Vote: Now and forever,” ran in three parts, from Saturday to Monday, and it is the kind of in-depth reporting that I fear will disappear if (when?) newspapers do.

Ave Maria also, unfortunately, feeds into the old stereotype that Catholics are more comfortable with divine right hierarchy than open democracy–that you can’t be a good American and a good Catholic. Yet as the series notes, Ave Maria may be in the American tradition of land barons more than it is in the Catholic tradition–at least of the past century, and especially under John Paul II–of holding up democracy as the political ideal, as long as it is accompanied by civic virtue. Maybe Monaghan doesn’t trust his own good Catholic residents?


PS: Looking at photos in the series, I was struck for the first time–though I’ve seen it before–by the town church, crafted in the shape of a bishop’s mitre. I don’t know why, but this time it really bothered me, as if it is a church dedicated to the worship of a bishop. Yes, we have bishops good and bad, but none I know (I hope) would feel remtoely comfortable with that. Perhaps no coincidence that the local ordinary, Bishop Frank Dewane, had to postpone dedication of the church due concerns over its canonical status and cooperation as part of the diocese.



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Your Name

posted May 12, 2009 at 1:53 pm

This whole project is a fundamentalist throw back that does more harm than good to the Catholic Church. My guess is – if you could get the bishop off-record, he would say that this is a nightmare; interferes with his time, energy, resources that probably need to be spent on the rest of the diocese.
Mr. Gibson – this is a well-researched series of articles but you could also add the research done about the university:
a) significant financial issues – students withdrawing;
b) internal controversy because of loss of donors; use of financial resources…not exactly a comfortable, christian atmosphere;
c) you do mention the squabble with Fessio who was fired by his own Jesuits while at the Univ. of San Francisco – he really needs to be assigned to EWTN;
d) as with any university – you can find disaffected students and families that describe Ave Maria as more like a cult.

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Charles Cosimano

posted May 12, 2009 at 2:46 pm

It would be fun to organize a group of atheists to buy in the town (let them try to stop it and get buried with civil rights lawsuits, it is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to even ask a buyer their religion) and then cause all manner legal trouble.

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Peter Collins

posted May 12, 2009 at 3:57 pm

It is a common mistake to believe the “conservative, orthodox, traditional” labels Monaghan used in his PR promoting Ave Maria. There is little substance to that, except in some of the faculty and students. The reality is Pres. Healy is a hard core charismatic from Steubenville where he met Monaghan, also similarly inclined. More importantly, the row with the local, very conservative bishop (Dewane) revealed that subserviance to the Church is not on the agenda – it is subserviance to Monaghan. Ditto the dropping of the use “Catholic University” and the “pre-theologate” program – now only a “men’s discernment program” due to failure to submit properly to Episcopal oversight. In short, the university and town are anomolous and very idiosyncratic places. The university has enough students now so one can find a comfortable niche, but overall the place is highly dysfunctional, rather superficially Catholic, and plagued with critics who have been damaged by Monaghan’s steamroller tactics at getting what he wants. He flys in priests and even Cardinals for PR, who are oblivious to all but the donations he made years before. It is no surprise that the town residents have no vote and that he and his partner Barron Collier can tax them to death if they wish with no vote by them.
But please do not make the mistake of accepting Monaghan’s PR characterization of the whole as “conservative, orthodox, or traditional.” It is certainly not. Believe that and you will not understand it at all. Overall, I think it fair to say it has damaged more families than it has helped, and has further divided and hurt the Church in the US, whatever the original intentions might have been.

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H. Lamar

posted May 12, 2009 at 4:19 pm

If you want to see the fullness of how Monaghan PR fails to mesh with the reality of Ave Maria, visit for two or three years worth of articles.
I consider myself an “orthodox” Catholic and would, in a heartbeat, send my kids to Notre Dame before any Ave Maria school.

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Joseph Fromm

posted May 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I thought that in the United States Constitution, there was something called the freedom of assembly and another novel idea called freedom of religion.
David, you state.
“Looking at photos in the series, I was struck for the first time–though I’ve seen it before–by the town church, crafted in the shape of a bishop’s mitre. I don’t know why, but this time it really bothered me, as if it is a church dedicated to the worship of a bishop.”
This really is ridiculous and not very original.
Karrie Jacobs wrote this on May 15, 2006
“with a central ellipse ringed by a series of Mediterranean-style mixed-use buildings. Smack in the middle is a huge church, shaped a bit like a miter.”
In another statement,
“a disturbing legal twist to Ave Maria–namely, that its own residents have no say in their own affairs because the five-member board.”
Have you never heard of an association board? Co-op board? Condominium board? A plus 55 age community were no children are allowed? Do not county, state and federal laws exist? Every one eligible to vote can vote for a county dog catcher, a county commissioner, a state representative, a state senator, a governor, a U.S. congressman, a U.S. Senator and a President.
It seems that your real issue, is a hidden theological issue, you should be discussing great ideas of Catholicism, not the lawn mowing schedule of a town you don’t live in.

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Disgusted in DC

posted May 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Last I checked, I could vote for the members of my condo board. Granted, the developer has a seat, but that is not a permanent arranagement, and he does not have total control either.
Having an unelected executive committee with dictatorial control over a town is every bit as inconsistent with a Republican form of government as the Imperial Judiciary that would, if they could, impose same-sex marriage and abortion on unwilling populaces and state governments.
I would call out a certain law school dean by name who used to pompously drone on about state power grabs against families and who have now joined the dark side, but that would be otiose. I suppose in his mind, living under a Lord Proprietor or the modern-day equivalent of the East India Tea Company, no matter how contrary such forms of government are to our Constitution, is a fair trade for an abortion-free and supposedly “family-friendly” environment.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Its a weird idea to me. Not that I think they should be prevented from doing it …. different strokes for different folks.
But it’s like taking the Planned Community concept to a creepy level.
I would love to live near a Monastery, or near a Catholic University somewhere… to have the ability to discourse and take classes and to have real choices in churches.
But I’m not sure I want to live in any kind of a town/commune type arrangement where everything is run through a committee and is so stringent.
Maybe I’m the weird one.

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Little Bear

posted May 12, 2009 at 9:05 pm

What this was supposed to be is an experiment in “perfection” in the old fashioned way. Monaghan apparently does not want to deal with humanity the way it is in reality (too unpredictable, messy) and God forbid that anyone really exercises their freedom! No, no, we can’t have that. He named this town “Ave Maria”. Is this what he thinks the Blessed Virgin is all about—is like—-like a pre-programed robot. And is that what he wants his residents to be like?

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posted May 12, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Monaghan doesn’t control this town-understand the facts. The developer is Barron Collier, a company that has been there for 90 years. And by the way, read the latest in the series-the developer doesn’t control the town forever. Get your facts right before you post.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm

This is no different than any other privately-developed planned community. Ave Maria is in unincorporated county land, and all residents have a county government they can vote on. They can even go through the motions to incorporate if they wish. The only other thing they might be using is the legislation that Disney uses to effectively run its own government through the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

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Your Name

posted May 13, 2009 at 7:53 am

This is no different than the condo I own, in Fort Myers Beach. Once they get a group voted in, they become the bosses of everyone and everything. Tell you what to do, and how to do it. Constantly raising the maintenance fees, and spending money foolishly–without knowing what they are doing. If you try to give them the advice they need, they still go ahead–do it wrong, and then have to have it redone. At Least Mr Monaghan and Collier Cox did develop the area, with their own money. Mr Monaghan’s wife is not Catholic. I do believe that a country that was founded on religious freedom; has come to forget about GOD. You say nothing about not having a say about how this country is being run into the ground, by a group of people–that you voted for. Also that they are trying to banish religon from everything. Your Autocrats are stealing from the poor, and giving to the rich. Wish I lived in AVE MARIA–sounds like it will become the place to go–if you want religious freedom. Shame on you Bishop’s backing down, becaue of a newspaper report–that is probably biased. God Have Mercy on My Country The Good Old USA; everyone wants to destroy–The Land of My Birth.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 9:17 am

Well let’s not forget that the founders of the United States didn’t care much for democracy – I believe it’s not even mentioned in the Constitution. This is because of democracy’s inherent flaw – that majority rules.
What if 51% of the people in Ave Maria wanted abortion? or capital punishment? or that the rich should be forced to help the poor through taxation, and not through charity?
People don’t always make the best, informed decisions. The Catholic Church, with 2,000 years of experience has a good idea of what is right and wrong, what should be debated and shouldn’t be debated.
This is why there isn’t a democratic election for the Pope. Can you imagine the millions of Catholics who have been influenced by political correctness getting to decide who should lead the Church?! The Church is timeless and doesn’t need to bow to the temporal whims of the day.

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Ave Maria resident

posted May 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Mr. Gibson:
You made a fatal flaw when posting this blog item: you presumed that the cub reporter who wrote the series for the Naples Daily News did not misrepresent facts in order to fit his negative story template (why anyone over the age of 12 would ever make such a presumption about a journalist is baffling). You took great pains to cite in the article that were attributed to my friend Kathy Delaney, hightlighting them in bold as if to emphasize how important her views as a resident and homeowner are. Here is an e-mail note she just sent to everyone in town: =============================== May 12, 2009 Dear Friends, Associates and Ave Maria Community Members – My prayer is “ Dearest Mother Mary, please cover for us!” I write to clarify my support of Ave Maria, Mr. Monaghan and the Barron Collier Co.’s. I have nothing but respect for Mr. Monaghan’s dream, his generosity and his business decisions. I have thanked him for his efforts on several occasions. I find myself here, invested in Ave Maria because I wanted a Catholic education for my children in a safe, predominantly Catholic environment. My boys are thriving in this respect and I could not think of a better place to raise them. Ave Maria is a beautiful environment with numerous opportunities for growth on many levels. In a recent article of the Naples News, I was grossly misrepresented by journalist Mr. Liam Dillon. In his opening story, he used my name 7 times to portray an unhappy homeowner. He used my quotes out of context and attached his own thoughts or concerns to my name. I did not seek him out to complain about the Ave Maria District and on the contrary, I completely trust that Mr. Monaghan will always make the right decisions for our community. I feel used by Mr. Dillon and I have told him so. I think something wonderful is happening in Ave Maria despite the constant attacks and negative reporting. It’s all about community spirit and our relationships with each other and our Lord. We have a unique opportunity and support base here to spiritually bond together as a community and be that beacon of hope for others. Sincerely, Kathy Delaney, supportive resident ==============
PS: Your comments about the church design and the bishop are snide snipes that are not the marks of a man of faith.

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H. Lamar

posted May 13, 2009 at 5:34 pm

“I completely trust that Mr. Monaghan will always make the right decisions for our community.”
Well, that says lots about Mrs. Delaney right there. If trusting Tom Monaghan to “always make the right decisions for our community” is a requirement to live and work at Ave Maria, then everyone should be transparent about it.
They’re not. That’s the problem. The developers and the university administration want to give the appearance that they deal with people in a participatory way. In actuality, you need to have Mrs. Delaney’s level of Utopian trust in Monaghan to live and work there. A central point of the Naples News article was that the developers intentionally went to lots of trouble to configure the law so that residents would have no other option BUT to trust, and do it indefinitely.
No thanks. Unwavering trust in, and docility toward, Tom Monaghan is not a requirement to be in good standing with the Holy Roman Catholic Church outside of Ave Maria Town.

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David Murdoch

posted May 13, 2009 at 8:56 pm

That’s very interesting. This reminds me of those 19th century utopians who tried to establish their ‘perfect’ communities and failed terribly.
Perhaps this community will fare differently. If the Holy Spirit is guiding it, we know that it will fare differently.
Wouldn’t it make more sense though, if the issues had to do with keeping things catholic, if the town simply drafted a constitution for itself that enforced such things?
God Bless,

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posted May 13, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Ave Marie Resident wrote:
PS: Your comments about the church design and the bishop are snide snipes that are not the marks of a man of faith.
Ah yes…disagree with my version of Catholic belief and you are less a Catholic than I. Looks like Ave Marie residents believe they are the mind of God, capable of judging one’s Catholicity.
Solely out of curiosity, my partner and I drove onto Ave Maria’s property this summer while visiting Naples. All I could think of was “Stepford cult.” In the bookstore, I was asked by an employee, “Are you a priest?” When I said, “No,” the reception immediately went cold and I was told, “I’m never wrong about this. Priests are the only men who walk in pairs.” If I told him we were a gay couple together 29 years, a trap door probably would have opened up and swallowed us into hell.
We still stopped to pray in the mitre church.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Dear guy with same-sex attraction disorder:

The gaydar equipment and the trap-door it triggers are in the church – the system must have been on the fritz that day (lucky for you).

You are fortunate to have been spared the patdown, frisk and body-cavity strip-search – as well as the restraints that are normally used to hold those who end up in the town dungeon.

Yet more proof that not everything in town is up to snuff. Some journalist will have to get to the bottom of this.

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H. Lamar

posted May 14, 2009 at 7:32 am

If you’re looking for journalism that has been getting to the bottom of Ave Maria for years, go to

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J G Taylor

posted October 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Two opposing freedoms I suppose; I can do what I like on my land and the right to vote. Since those moving there chose to do so, it seems that they are choosing to give up the right to vote.

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