Recently, while driving from Miami to Tampa, I decided to make a quick stop to see how things were coming along in Ave Maria, the two-year-old "Roman Catholic town" whose construction was spearheaded by Domino's Pizza magnate and über-Papist Tom Monaghan out amid orchards and farmland east of Naples, Florida. At the end of a 20-mile detour off I-75, I finally pulled across a tastefully balustraded bridge into God's own 11,000 acres, brought into being with an earthly assist from millions of tons of dough and cheese, not to mention an ocean of tomato sauce.
It's still largely wide-open space, of course, dotted with several developments -- little islands of Mediterranean-ranch suburbia amid a sea of green fields. As I approached, the first thing I noticed, off in the distance, looked to be a gray barrel-roofed blimp hangar. But lo and behold, by the time I pulled up to Ave Maria's "downtown" -- christened the Pizza, er, Piazza -- the "hangar" resolved into the Oratory, one of the most interesting modern churches I've seen in a long time. Passing through the hewn-stone entryway, I found myself in a soaring space crowned with graceful, curved and interlocking girders and accented with neo-Craftsman-style wall lamps and woodwork. At the end of the nave, a simple altar stands before a blank, soaring wall adorned by no more than a huge crucified Christ that appears to hover in mid-air.
Surrounding the Oratory is an arc of streetfront shops and condos, again with that tasteful ersatz nouvelle-Med look. Apart from a couple of information centers, there's a bookstore, a couple of informal coffee/smoothie shops-cum-eateries, a women's boutique, a hair salon and a mini-museum chronicling the town's short history. The apartments above them are premium priced, starting at a cool $400K (anyone on a vow of poverty need not apply in this holy hamlet). Just outside the downtown is Ave Maria University (Monaghan's original project, founded in 1998 as Ave Maria College in Ypslilanti, Michigan), and a new Publix supermarket lies down the road apiece.
Signs that this town is definitely a conservative Catholic enterprise are easy enough to spot. McCain-Palin bumper stickers graced a number of the cars. The Mexican-staffed Bean of Ave Maria could've passed for a Starbucks but for its adornments (various photos, posters and figurines of saints, priests, and popes) and complimentary media materials (Fox News on the flatscreen, National Review and Weekly Standard in the magazine rack). Besides college texts, the meager bookstore offerings struck me as heavy on Limbaugh and O'Reilly, and behind the cashiers it's hard to miss the big color poster of the town's namesake, the Virgin Mary, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. To be fair, though, I also found books by Paul Krugman and Al Gore (know thine enemy, perhaps?), and I was able to verify that there are no porn filters on The Bean's free Internet station.
No major surprises, then. More to the point is the fact that the economic slump hasn't spared even what some see as the Lord's work. Although they tell me the university's doing fine, the lady in the real estate office confessed that of the 11,000 currently allotted housing units, only some 300 have been sold. Indeed, the whole place had the feel of something just a notch or two above a ghost town. Could it be that not that many Americans are comfortable moving into what is designed to be, essentially, a religious ghetto? Or that not enough folks can afford the not-exactly-bargain prices? Or just maybe, that prospective buyers are spooked by the prospect of taxation without representation? According to the Naples News, extra acres of undevelopable land within the town borders were set aside to ensure that Monaghan's corporation and never the homeowners will control local government ad sæcula sæculorum. No free elections needed in a corporate theocracy, thank you. (What's more, several other "new towns" in Florida have copied this formula.)
Anyway, there were several tourists wandering around, but just a handful of residents in evidence, most of them well north of 40 summers (in fact, one of the major developments here is a Del Webb community for folks 55 and older). But the community's apparently able to maintain its own K-12 school, and when college classes begin again in September, I expect the downtown will start feeling fuller and younger.
You know, everyone talks about California as a mecca for the oddball and the alternative. But I've always felt that in this regard the Sunshine State is no slacker, whether it's the sometimes wacky liberalism of Key West or, now, the sanitized piety of Ave Maria. So if you should ever find yourself on this stretch of Florida's Gulf Coast, this singular community can make a pretty interesting tourist attraction. Besides, The Bean's lox and bagel is a tasty deal at just $6.99, including chips and a slice of watermelon.
David Paul Appell is director of AskATravelExpert.com and the travel social network Tripatini.com.