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Catholic university opens doors

School officials tout orthodox environment

NAPLES, Fla. -- With professors she found too liberal and "femi-Nazi" students, the small Catholic college in the Northeast where Olivia Rosario spent one unhappy semester before dropping out might as well have been Gomorrah. Two years later, the 20-year-old from New Bedford, Mass., has found a more comfortable fit on Florida's Gulf Coast: Ave Maria University, a creation of Domino's Pizza founder and self-described "unabashed Catholic" Tom Monaghan, whose vision of a Notre Dame of the South began in earnest as classes started this week.

"I just wanted a school that was truly Catholic," said Rosario, who worked as a flight attendant after leaving Regis College, a women's college in Weston, Mass. "A lot of schools that say they're Catholic are becoming ultra-liberal."

At Ave Maria -- the nation's first new Catholic university in more than 40 years -- Rosario need not worry. The school makes no qualms about its commitment to orthodox Catholicism, from its single-sex dorms and required Latin courses to its adherence to Pope John Paul II's 1990 encyclical on college-level education, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." Latin for "From the heart of the church," the motto appears on the school's logo.

Ave Maria (Latin for "Hail Mary") is an outgrowth of Monaghan's pizza empire, which he sold several years ago for a reported $1 billion. Proceeds from the sale were used to start Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 1998.

Monaghan, a Michigan native who grew up in a Catholic orphanage after his father died suddenly, wanted to expand the college into a university. When Ann Arbor zoning officials rejected the request, however, he set his sights on southwest Florida, a place a preponderance of well-heeled, conservative Catholics from the Midwest call home, either year-round or during the winter months.

Ave Maria is more than just a university. In a few short years, it will also be a planned community on what is now 5,800 acres of tomato patches, pepper fields, citrus groves, and sod farms about 25 miles east of Naples, near the rural farming village of Immokalee.

When word of Monaghan's interest in Florida first surfaced, landowners from Jacksonville to Sarasota scrambled to put together potential deals. The winner was the Barron Collier Companies, named for the northern entrepreneur who a century ago helped convert the swamps of southwest Florida into what is now the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country, a swath of which (Collier County) bears his name.

The university's profits from the deal, which requires an array of federal, state, and local permits, will be funneled back into endowments, according to school officials. The arrangement, as well as Monaghan's conservative political leanings, however, have some skeptics questioning the purpose of Ave Maria.

Catholic scholar Eugene Kennedy, a seasonal Naples resident and professor emeritus at Loyola University in Chicago, dismissed Monaghan's plans for a "new Eden for Catholic education."

"In this new Garden of Eden, there will be, as in Genesis, a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose fruit the students will be forbidden to eat," Kennedy recently wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.

"We lost our lease on Eden a long time ago, and this effort to build a new one couldn't succeed even in an old movie directed by Frank Capra, `Mr. Monaghan Goes to Naples.' "

Ave Maria University's president, Nicholas J. Healy, said the school will strictly adhere to a separation of academia and politics.

"There may be a temptation," he acknowledged. "But it is a temptation we need to resist. The very nature of a university should foreclose active involvement in politics. We need to be above politics."

Monaghan's educational Eden will also include more earthly pursuits, including three golf courses, one of which will be reserved for high-paying donors -- a place he's referred to as a "Catholic Augusta National." While there are slightly more than 100 students from 33 states attending the school, Monaghan anticipates 5,000 students -- and a Division I football program -- on an 850-acre campus by 2006.

For now, Ave Maria's students, administrators, and nine full-time faculty members must make do in a converted assisted-living center in Naples, negotiating construction workers and unpacked boxes during the hectic first days of school. Andrew Williams, an 18-year-old freshman from Sturbridge, Mass., was already enrolled in Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology and planned to study computer graphics when his grandfather mentioned Ave Maria. The university, and its location, quickly won over the Catholic high school graduate. While careful not to criticize the liberal leanings of their brethren at many of the nation's 235 other Catholic colleges and universities, Ave Maria officials made it clear that theirs is a different way. "We are very clear about our mission," said Healy. "We are very clear about our Catholic identity. We are very clear in our commitment to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. We are very clear about our teaching authority to the church. . . .

"If that distinguishes us from other Catholic schools, so be it."

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