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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 April 2006, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Pizza billionaire's Catholic haven
By Matt Wells
In Florida

When American businessman Tom Monaghan had built his fortune selling pizzas around the world, he set about building something else - a monument to his devout Catholic faith.

Cornerstone of the Ave Maria oratory
The oratory will have room for 1,100 worshippers
The town of Ave Maria is modelled on the great medieval cities of Europe, with church and university at the centre of public life.

Tom Monaghan's 21st Century version is quickly taking shape on flat and featureless farmland about 30 miles (48km) from the south-west Florida coast.

In a few weeks' time, the workforce will swell to around 1,500, as the vast oratory begins to take shape, surrounded by a brand-new university and 11,000 new homes.

It is already an extraordinary sight, with most of the main foundations laid, including a large rectangular lake that quickly became home to a group of Florida alligators.

"They moved in as soon as the water showed up," said the building site director, Skip Doyle.

Alongside the oratory - which will have room for 1,100 worshippers - will stand a 20m-high (65ft) crucifix.

We are fully intending to restrict activities in the town which are inimical to traditional family life
Nick Healy
Ave Maria university
Mr Monaghan devoted his life to his religion after selling his Domino's Pizza chain a few years ago, and originally intended to build Ave Maria in his home state of Michigan.

After failing to get planning permission there, he is spending around $400m (223m) to make his dream come true further south, in partnership with a large local developer.

Limits

Because of its creator's ultra-conservative beliefs when it comes to politics and religion, Ave Maria has set alarm bells ringing for civil liberties' activists across the country.

Mr Monaghan was an orphan, raised largely by nuns. As a life-long follower of strict Catholicism, he originally suggested that stores selling contraception and pornography would be banned in Ave Maria.

Howard Simon
What Ave Maria will end up being, we don't really know yet
Howard Simon
ACLU-Florida
The university president, Nick Healy, says the reality will be different.

"Mr Monaghan has realised that not everything he'd prefer to have happen, can be achieved by legal requirement, or by restriction," he said, speaking in his office on Ave Maria University's temporary campus, a short drive from the site.

However there are firm limits - there will be no sex shops, or topless bars.

"We are fully intending to restrict activities in the town which are inimical to traditional family life," Mr Healy says.

He stresses that people of all faiths or none will be welcome to live in Ave Maria.

Local pharmacies and the town hospital will be discouraged from stocking contraceptives, but along with pornographic magazines, they will not be banned outright.

Those assurances do not go far enough to satisfy the man who is leading the criticism of Ave Maria's founder, Florida's American Civil Liberties' Union director, Howard Simon.

Ave Maria lake
The lake has become home to alligators
As the former Michigan state director, he has followed Tom Monaghan's politics closely, and believes that his preference is for theocratic government, over secular.

"What Ave Maria will end up being, we don't really know yet," says Mr Simon.

"We don't give religious organisations the power of government, and we don't give government the power over religious organisations in the United States," he adds.

"We've divided that up, and I think dividing it up has kept us somewhat free."

Polarisation

Ave Maria's students are keen to move into their new home, which should be ready for the next academic year.

Maria Fidero
While it might attract people of different faiths, it's going to attract the same type of person - people who want to lead a better life, a cleaner life, with similar goals
Maria Fidero
Student
Maria Fidero and Blair Marshall say they are unconcerned by talk of crossing the constitutional boundary between Church and state.

"If people want to try to oppose... I guess that's their freedom but we just want to share the gospel," says Blair.

Maria says she is looking forward to being in a more wholesome environment with Catholicism at the centre.

"While it might attract people of different faiths, it's going to attract the same type of person - people who want to lead a better life, a cleaner life, with similar goals," she explains.

And to emphasise the polarisation between religious and secular viewpoints, there has been an explosion of interest in Ave Maria from conservative Catholics all over America, since the ACLU and groups like Planned Parenthood went public with their concerns.

"Around 90,000 people have hit our website in the last month-and-a-half," says Blake Gable, from the developers Barron Collier.

"There are literally tens of thousands of people who've taken the time to look us up and say, 'hey, I'm interested in buying a home'."

In many ways, Ave Maria is just the latest in a long line of religiously-inspired settlements, stretching back to the Pilgrim Fathers who landed on Plymouth Rock.

For devout billionaires with a vision, there is always going to be land available to bring a dream to life, although not many have the firm endorsement of the Pope.

"We have the advantage of our provost, Father Fessio, having formerly been a student [of Pope Benedict]," says Nick Healy.




SEE ALSO:
Christians to bare all in Florida
08 Jan 04 |  Americas
Domino's Pizza chain raises dough
14 Apr 04 |  Business


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