Halfway To Heaven

The 5,000-acre tomato field in southwestern Florida sure doesn't look like heaven. Bulldozers scrape the land flat while clusters of Porta Pottis signal an undeniable earthiness. But soon a massive cathedral will rise from this barren spot. Reaching 100 feet in the air behind a 65-foot crucifix, the Oratory will anchor Ave Maria, a whole new town and Roman Catholic university 30 miles east of Naples. Ground was officially broken last week, and the plan is to build 11,000 homes--likely drawing families who already hold the church at the center of their lives.

For Tom Monaghan, the devout Catholic who founded Domino's Pizza and is now bankrolling most of the initial $400 million cost of the project, Ave Maria is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to spreading his own strict interpretation of Catholicism. Though he says nonbelievers are welcome, Monaghan clearly wants the community to embody his conservative values. He controls all the commercial real estate in town (along with his developing partner, Barron Collier Cos.) and is asking pharmacies not to carry contraceptives. If forced to choose between two otherwise comparable drugstores, Barron Collier would favor the one that honored that request, says its president and CEO, Paul Marinelli. Discussing his life as a millionaire Catholic who puts his money where his faith is, Monaghan says: "I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don't want to be on the sidelines."

The ACLU of Florida is worried about how he's playing the game. "It is completely naive to think this first attempt [to restrict access to contraception] will be their last," says executive director Howard Simon. Armed with a 1946 Supreme Court opinion that "ownership [of a town] does not always mean absolute dominion," Simon will be watching Ave Maria for any signs of Monaghan's request's becoming a demand. Planned Parenthood is similarly alarmed. So far, Naples Community Hospital, which plans to open a clinic in Ave Maria Town, says it will not prescribe any birth control to students. Will others be able to get the pill? "For the general public, the answer is probably yes, but not definitely yes," says hospital point man Edgardo Tenreiro. The Florida attorney general's office says the issue of limiting access will likely have to be worked out in court. Barron Collier and Monaghan say they're following Florida law.

Raised by nuns in orphanages, Monaghan, 68, has tried to franchise his religious views in the past, creating elementary schools, a small college, Catho-lic radio stations and, in 2000, a Catholic law school. While many of his initiatives have foundered, the law school, with 88 percent of its most recent class passing the Michigan bar, is off to a strong start. Early signs suggest the new Ave Maria complex, his final and most ambitious project, might also work out. The developers are close to leasing 60 percent of the commercial space (no pharmacists yet), says project manager Blake Gable, and they have received some 7,000 inquiries from people interested in buying homes, which will go for less than the half-million median price in nearby Naples. In an area of strip malls and bad traffic, Ave Maria's communal design--with shops within walking distance to the homes--has civic appeal. "The general buzz is that the university and town are going to be a spark plug for massive development in that area," says Michael Reagen, president of the Naples Chamber of Commerce. Even the pope is interested. When Ave Maria Provost Father Joseph Fessio saw Benedict XVI, the first thing out of the new pontiff's mouth, according to Fessio, was, "How's Ave Maria?" He's not the only one awaiting the answer.