During a faculty meeting in spring 2007, Father Joseph Fessio, a tall and handsome Jesuit priest who had worked for Monaghan for five years, pressured his boss to downsize his sporting ambitions. Fessio had played Division I baseball at Santa Clara University and knew how much time — and money — went into building even a mediocre program.

"We were starting to feel the financial crunch, and we simply couldn't build everything he wanted," Fessio recalls. "So Tom said he wanted to build the gymnasium and not build the academic building."

"Tom, this is a university," Fessio countered. "Do you realize the message it would send to build the gym but not the classrooms?"

The Ave Maria Oratorium square.
Michael E. Miller
The Ave Maria Oratorium square.
Marielena Stuart says the administration is trying to "intimidate its residents and property owners."
Courtesy of Marielena Stuart
Marielena Stuart says the administration is trying to "intimidate its residents and property owners."

Monaghan backed down, but just barely. He agreed to save money by beginning with a lower-division basketball team.

Soon, Ave Maria officials were splashing full-ride scholarships on players from around the country. Tony Turkovic was one of them. The New York City kid got the hard sell when he visited in 2008. After a tour, he was offered a full four-year ride. But there was a catch.

"They wanted him to sign before we were supposed to go back in the afternoon," his mother, Branca, remembers. "It was like, 'Sign before you really see any more.' " While a university photographer held up a digital camera, Tony put pen to paper.

"I don't know where my head was that day," she says. "We were distracted by their promises. I wasn't paying attention."

Tony moved to Ave Maria in August. Two weeks later, Branca's phone rang.

"Mom, these people are crazy," Tony said. "Put me on the first flight home."

Turkovic would later tell the Naples Daily News that his time in Ave Maria was "the worst two weeks of [his] life." The university offered courses in theology, philosophy, and biology but not the tech classes he was expecting. Girls weren't allowed in boys' rooms under penalty of expulsion. And the nearest supermarket was ten miles away in Immokalee.

The basketball was even worse. Turkovic had passed up less generous scholarships to other schools in the Northeast. Now he found himself practicing in a local K-12 school in a town of a few hundred residents. There was one makeshift locker room. And the coach, supposedly a devout Catholic, screamed obscenities at players all practice long. Turkovic quit before the season began.

"It was a horrible experience," his mother says. "Those people weren't Catholic. They were weirdos."

Soon, the whole program began to unravel. The coach, Ricky Benitez, was fired for using profanity. It was soon discovered that his résumé was a fake. He claimed to have worked as an NBA scout and played for the Puerto Rican national team, but neither was true.

By midseason, nine of the team's 12 scholarship players had either dropped out or become academically ineligible. Of the three recruits remaining, one was the athletic director's son.

"It wasn't fair to these kids to bring them out there under the pretense that they were going to have a regular student life," Fessio says.

Monaghan's expensive sports scholarships had only made Ave Maria's financial problems worse. He had a simple but radical answer: Increase enrollment by 50 percent each year. But there was a hangup. The billionaire also demanded that SAT scores keep improving, which would require more scholarships to attract better students.

"He had all these incompatible goals," Fessio says. When Fessio suggested to a board member that it might be time for Monaghan to step down, the billionaire caught wind. And fired him.

Jim Towey is a former assistant to Mother Teresa, but he suddenly goes strangely Amish and squirmy when New Times attempts to take his photo in front of Tom Monaghan's orange-brick quasi-oratory. The Joe Biden look-alike waves his hand and walks in the opposite direction.

"Nah, it would send the wrong message," he says. "That's not what the university is about."

These days, Ave Maria's new president and CEO is having to disavow a lot of his predecessor's accomplishments. Towey was hired in February, relegating Monaghan from CEO to the ceremonial position of chancellor. Formerly an aide to President George W. Bush and head of Florida's health and human services agency, he doesn't hide the fact that he's the clean-up guy sent to fix Ave Maria's mess.

"Everyone expected deficits at the beginning," Towey says, admitting that the university is still losing several million dollars each term. "My job is to end them [within three years]." After less than two months on campus, Towey announced he was firing 17 employees, slashing the overall budget by 10 percent, trimming sports programs, and gradually building enrollment while reducing scholarships.

Yet straightening out Monaghan's experiment might not be so simple. Towey claims to have no clue about the basketball program debacle two years ago. And asked about Marielena Stuart, he turns to an aide and inquires, "Have I met with her?" Then, when he makes the connection, he slams her claims against the university. "I worked for Mother Teresa for 12 years," he says. "No one is going to accuse me of being squishy in my faith."

He uses the word normal like a bullet point: "This is a very normal place, with normal students." But moments later, he admits Ave Maria is anything but ordinary. "This is a very unique arrangement here. It's almost like what you would see in medieval times when a baron would go and build himself a church and monastery."

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When you meet Marielena Stuart you feel you are in the presence of royalty. I heard her speak before several hundred persons and she had them eating out of her hand. She is a brilliant speaker and will go down in history as one of America's most respected Senators, by all Americans, regardless of party affiliation. She is even much more attractive in person than on the photo that appears in this article.


This story is filled with so much anti- catholic bigotry and prejudice it makes me sick. Ms Stuart also has her face in another story when the church was dedicated and consecrated and how thrilled she was to be part of the parish. Obviously your editor dosen't know anything about catholic churches,Mass cannot be said until the church is finished and consecrated by the bishop.Calling the church a monstrosity and a cyclops is derogatory to say the least. I have a young friend who recently graduated from AMU andhe and his family loved the college atmosphere, he received an excellent education and had no complaints about the school being app 20 miles from Naples,many good colleges are situated out in the country. Your piece about a disgruntled woman who seems to be so self serving and two faced is basically a means for your paper to show your ignorance and anti-catholic feelings.


Freaks belong in the swamp!


my son is a freshmen football player at amu i am a 25 year die hard union man and a obama  guy.raise catholic i am the most non relgious person in the world been 2 ava marie 20 times since march of this year been 2 the bean the smoothie place drank bass ale at the pub with the locals and parents of amu every body was very chilled no one freaking out over anything . my son doent go 2 church  the shool puts ZERO PRESSURE on him 2  go. what im try 2 say that this story about the kids of amu getting a bad education and the sprorts program is BULLSHIT STORY  ITS STINKS 2 HIGH HEAVEN SO 2 SPEAK  i got no prob with my kid going there what so ever coach fagan an deer  are very good people   this  is a bullshit hack job story fuck the new times  thank u thank u very much 


This is the problem when you mix politics, religion, and money.  You get what really IS fascist.  Its one of the reasons the founders were smart enough not to allow religion into government.  Too bad there are those who want to put it back.