Since arriving in Southwest Florida on November 1st, we have watched the weather reports each night on the local stations and have seen a town on the map with the name of Ave Maria. I thought it was a unique name for a town. Soon others more familiar with the area were mentioning that we should take a ride out to Ave Maria to check it out. We were told that it was a town built for Catholics. I am not sure what was more intriguing; the fact that you could incorporate a town in this day and age, or that the town was considered a “Catholic” town.
Being from Connecticut, the idea of creating a new town seemed foreign to me. Connecticut is different from most states in that it has counties, but except for the courts, and possibly some other services that do not affect the everyday lives of “nutmeggers”, counties have no political or economic structure. Connecticut has 169 separate towns that very rarely work cooperatively. It is one of the main reasons that Connecticut is the second richest state in the country while also having four of the top ten poorest cities in the country.
Additional intrigue was created by the fact that we were both raised as Catholics and attended Catholic elementary schools. Despite having the children baptized early on we have fallen away from the church for various reasons which may or may not be germane to the topic. Suffice to say we both possess a healthy skepticism concerning the Roman Catholic Church.
Last week we decided that a visit to Ave Maria would be a good way to spend the afternoon. The town is located about forty minutes from our resort in Bonita Springs between Immokalee and Naples. The last ten miles on our way to the town was a travel down Oil Field Rd. The area was fairly desolate except for a very large tomato farm. It was a reminder that there exists in Florida, especially up the spine of the state, miles and miles of open land. Much of what you find on both coasts, with town after town offering thousands of gated communities and endless stores and shopping centers, has sprouted up in the last thirty to forty years.
Out of nowhere you are suddenly struck by the lush and extravagant entrance to Ave Maria. Crossing over the small cobblestone bridge you are on the cobblestoned main road into the town. There is no gate. No need to stop and present yourself. You are free to enter the town and check out the several different living communities that can be entered from the main road.
Ave Maria is an incorporated community founded in 2005. It is essentially operated by the Ave Maria Development Company which is a joint venture between the Barron Collier Companies and the Ave Maria Foundation. The concept for the town was essentially the brainchild of Tom Monaghan the founder and owner of Dominos Pizza and one-time owner of the Detroit Tigers. Tom Monaghan is a staunch conservative Catholic who had a goal of creating a Catholic town that would be a national model. The community was sanctioned by the Florida legislature as a Stewardship Community District. It is one of the fastest growing planned communities in the United States.
As you roll down the main road that dissects the town you find a strange mix of the Catholic foundation and other amenities that you might find in any town. We passed a few living communities each seemingly developed by a different developer. We came upon a Mobil station and convenience store that was sharing parking space with a microbrewery that served wings. Had we not already had lunch, a stop at this establishment would have been in order.
As you continue down the main center road you come upon some schools and Ave Maria University. The university was started by Tom Monaghan and he served as its chancellor for a period. Children living in Ave Maria can attend the public Collier County schools that are within miles down the road or they can choose to attend the private schools offered by the town. There is a Montessori pre-school, an International pre-school and a K-12 academy. The town also has a museum and learning center dedicated to Mother Teresa.
You really get a sense of the town’s mission as you begin to get closer to the town center. The focal point of the center is the church which dominates the area called Annunciation Circle. The church with its 100 foot façade, displays a carved depiction of the annunciation with the Angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary to deliver the news of the impending birth of Christ. It is striking and hard to drive by with your eyes transfixed on the structure. Annunciation Circle is the street that surrounds the church and has several stores and restaurants.
It is said that the design of the church was sketched out by Monaghan himself originally and at least partially inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. The intertwining steel beams are visible on the exterior and interior of the church.
The Interior of the Church
Continuing through the town you are struck by the other amenities that are not necessarily found in a gated community and that make Ave Maria a town. There is a small water park by a public town pool and many athletic fields for baseball, softball and tennis. There is also a dog park, Bocce courts, trails walking/running trails and an amphitheater.
Apparently, the town has had its share of growing pains and controversy; some political and some environmental. There have been detractors who have not exactly fallen in line with the way the town has been run or how the concept of Catholicism has been incorporated. It is also reported that the town has the greatest concentration of mosquitoes of any area in Southwest Florida. I am assuming that the Everglades are excluded from that equation. Given that the town is built on and around swampland, it is not hard to believe those reports. The town endures the heaviest and most frequent spraying of chemicals for the mosquitoes. Although the state claims that the chemicals are organic and safe, the residents of Ave Maria will eventually be the judges.
The visit to Ave Maria was certainly an interesting way to spend an afternoon. If nothing else, a walk around and through the church was an example of stunning and unique architecture. We could both see why anyone, not just Catholics, would find the town enticing.