"And the Subdivision Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us"*, Part I

* Hat Tip to Arturo Vasquez, now of the Reditus blog, for the Title

Poor logistical planning, for which my father would be very disappointed in me, led to me finding myself sitting in a coffee shop in the town of Ave Maria, Florida.

I took a red-eye flight Thursday night to Fort Lauderdale to go to the wedding of a law school classmate of mine. The wedding was being held in Marco Island, which is on the other side of the peninsula from Fort Lauderdale, across the Everglades. The problem was that my flight arrived in Florida at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, but I couldn’t check into my hotel on Marco Island until 4 p.m. Since it only takes two hours to cross the Everglades, I had 6 hours to kill, and no sleep the night before.

As you might expect, there is not much to see when crossing the Everglades, and I felt myself starting to zone out. As if on cue, I saw a large billboard for the community of Ave Maria, just off I-75. A combination of fatigue, the promise of some food and a cup of coffee, and sheer curiosity made it my inevitable destination.

A brief primer on Ave Maria for those not familiar with the project. Tom Monaghan is a guy from Michigan who made a kajillion dollars founding Dominos Pizza. After cashing out, he dedicated his money to supporting Catholic causes, mostly of a conservative flavor. He started a university in Ann Arbor called Ave Maria University, which probably became best known for its law school, which in a short time developed a pretty strong reputation by virtue of attracting A-list conservative legal scholars such as Robert Bork. Monaghan, however, had a much bigger vision. He wanted to create a planned community for Catholics to live and work and pray together, with his University as a centerpiece. And so, he bought a massive chunk of land in the middle of nowhere in Southwest Florida, ordered his university to pack up and move down (much to the consternation of the law faculty, if I remember correctly), and began building the town of Ave Maria.

The town is clearly a work in progress, so it is a little unfair to judge it at this point. As you drive in, there is a large office park that is both brand new and completely empty. Most of the space is taken up with a handful of subdivisions, each clearly with lots of space to grow. The two subdivisions I saw were typical Florida in every way—one was on a golf course, and the other was a gated community. Though, this raises the question of who exactly the gates were designed to keep out. Ave Maria is in the middle of nowhere, so no “undesirables” are going to wander to there unless they are super motivated, and I can’t imagine the Ave Maria University student body has a reputation for running amok in the community. Perhaps it is a legacy of the failure of Monaghan’s original vision, which was to require that residents to agree to practice Catholicism if they wanted to live in Ave Maria. Alas, Monaghan failed to run that idea by any of the distinguished faculty at his law school, who would have told him that courts take a dim view of such restrictive covenants.

The enormous open spaces contribute to the feeling of incompleteness. There are many signs in the University area that say “future home of” such-and-such (including the law school). All of the construction and space made the place seem really empty, though 10 a.m. on a Friday is not the most happening time. Still, I saw very few people walking around, adding to the deserted feel of the place.

I stopped into “The Bean at Ave Maria”—the local coffee shop. At first glance, it appeared to be like any other coffee spot not far from a college campus. But a closer look revealed a couple of details not often seen in a coffee shop. Above my head on the wall was a photograph of what appears to be a young Pope John Paul II, hearing a confession in what looks to be a mine or some other industrial area. Right next to the creamer is a sign informing you of the number of babies saved by the Collier Crisis Pregnancy Center in 2009 (1,000 if you are curious). Pope Benedict is in a framed picture, blessing the patrons from his spot above the bagel slicer. And, in a touch that would be too clichéd for a movie script, the single television in the place was tuned to, you guessed it, Fox News Channel. However, full disclosure requires me to mention that the bagel was quite tasty, and not over-toasted, which is a pet peeve of mine.

Across the street from The Bean, and ringed with condos, is the church—referred to as “The Oratory” in a strange touch of Englishness. It doesn’t take an urban planning degree to realize that the location of the Oratory and the surrounding mixed-use buildings is designed to re-create the European model of city, with the Cathedral as the central building and everything else revolving around it. It might work if the surrounding buildings were fully used, but it doesn’t seem like they are, and so the location just seems odd.

The Oratory itself is also a little odd. The theme is certainly Gothic, but the straight lines of a normal Gothic church are replaced with an oval shape. The flying buttresses are made of painted steel, a contrast (some might say clash) with the sand colored stone used on the façade. The painted steel motif is carried over in a big way to the interior, with an exposed internal skeleton of painted steel forming a lattice-work. The religious art was surprisingly sparce, highlighted by two large statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, along with an enormous crucifix hanging over the altar.

The sense of proportion of these pieces seemed off, especially the crucifix—they swallowed up the more human sized altar and tabernacle. If the best medieval cathedrals create a symphony by interweaving light and shape, the effect here was more like a high decibel foghorn—one very loud, overawing note. While it could plausibly tick off all the check boxes for a traditional church, the final impression was more like the brutalist modern structures the architects of the Oratory probably define themselves against.

My final stop before getting back on the road was the campus book store. It was rather small, befitting the small size of the school. The book selection was pretty standard fare—in the political science section you had the Old Masters of Machiavelli, Locke, and Hamilton next to the New Masters of Buchanan, Coulter, and O’Reilly. Not surprisingly, there were lots of Catholic books, mostly new publications but a large selection of traditional devotional works as well. One thing that caught my eye was the school-themed t-shirts and sweatshirts that had the nickname of the school as “The Gyrenes.” I assumed this was some Catholic reference that I was unfamiliar with. It turns out that this instinct was completely wrong—Gyrene is a term for a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, used during the Korean War. I could not for the life of me see what connection this possibly had with Ave Maria University, until I came across a display of a book by Monaghan that talked proudly of his service in the Marines. L’etat, c’est moi.

Thoughts on all of this in Part II


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