- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NAPLES, Fla. — No, of course not, Ave Maria is not a Roman Catholic town, its builders say. Why would you think such a thing?

Yes, the streets have names such as Annunciation Circle and John Paul II Boulevard. The town is laid out to catch the sunrise at a certain angle each March 25, the day Catholics celebrate the Feast of Annunciation. And the Catholic university, whose 10-story church dominates the landscape, bans condoms and warns that premarital sex can be grounds for expulsion.

But Ave Maria is open to everyone, said Blake Gable, project manager for the Barron Collier Cos., which is building the new town in partnership with Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, an ardent Catholic.

“When I lived in Washington, D.C., I looked out my window and I saw the National Cathedral. I didn’t feel like I was in a religious environment,” Mr. Gable said.

The builders of Ave Maria, whose name is Latin for Hail Mary, have been struggling to get the message out that anyone can live here ever since Mr. Monaghan’s headline-grabbing comments in 2005, when the site was still just a sod farm. Mr. Monaghan told a Catholic group at the time that the town would be governed by Roman Catholic principles. He said that stores wouldn’t carry contraceptives or pornography and that cable TV would have no adult channels.

In response, a Wall Street Journal opinion column quoted a critic of Ave Maria as calling it a “Catholic Jonestown,” a reference to the South American settlement where 900 cult members died in a mass suicide. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida threatened to sue. Critics called it un-American. And Mr. Monaghan backed off.

Mr. Monaghan now says that Ave Maria University, the school he is also bankrolling, will follow strict Catholic guidelines but that the town will be largely allowed to grow uninhibited — except for no adult novelty stores or topless clubs. The developers say that they will merely suggest that merchants not sell contraceptives or porn and that cable TV offerings will not be restricted.

They also say that they will allow any denomination to build a house of worship in Ave Maria and that homosexuals are welcome, too.

In fact, the Web site for the town, www.avemaria.com, makes no mention of Catholicism at all, not even noting that the school will be Catholic.

Ave Maria is an exciting place to live, work, play and learn for every family, every lifestyle and every dream,” the town site says.

Mr. Monaghan has spent more than $200 million building the school, which opens next month and hopes to attract 5,500 students. It is the first Catholic university built in the United States in four decades. Mr. Gable and Mr. Monaghan repeatedly note that the university and town are two separate entities.

Ave Maria University President Nicholas Healy Jr. said the school would “encourage students to live a Catholic moral life.”

Barron Collier has spent about $200 million constructing the town and aims to house more than 20,000 residents. Mr. Gable said sales have exceeded expectations, with about 250 homes sold since February, though just a few of those people have moved in.

As for whether Jews or others might be uncomfortable living in a town called Ave Maria, he said: “Do people who live in San Francisco feel offended? San Antonio?”