Ave Maria: A Catholic University Experiment in the Everglades Gone Wrong

Marielena Stuart stood in the middle of a quiet street, 120 miles across the swamp from Miami, and stared down the black plastic barrel of a news camera. Behind her loomed a monstrous church, its 100-foot orange brick façade shimmering like scales in the nighttime spotlights. Stuart glanced up at...
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Marielena Stuart stood in the middle of a quiet street, 120 miles across the swamp from Miami, and stared down the black plastic barrel of a news camera. Behind her loomed a monstrous church, its 100-foot orange brick façade shimmering like scales in the nighttime spotlights. Stuart glanced up at its one round window — a Cyclops' unblinking eye gazing out over the strange, tiny town of Ave Maria — and shuddered.

Her dream town had turned against her, she explained. Stuart, a conservative Catholic writer and blogger who resembles an aging Elizabeth Taylor, explained that she felt like she was being watched from all angles. She had been banned from nearly 1,000 acres of the town for asking inconvenient questions. Now she was afraid to even step into her own church for fear of being arrested.

"You only find this in fascist regimes," she said bitterly into a Fox 4 News microphone.

Stuart's two years in Ave Maria had become a nightmare, she added, all because she had committed the cardinal sin of questioning town founder and Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan. On her blog, the Chronicles of Ave Maria, Stuart had compared the place to a prison and Monaghan to its warden. She and her family had been "harassed" because she was the only one willing to stand up to the billionaire and his edicts.

"I believe that the duty of a journalist is to expose and write the truth," Stuart said. "And I've written the truth."

That was in 2009. Two years earlier, Monaghan had unveiled Ave Maria as his vision for a new and righteous America founded upon strict Catholic values. He had sunk a half-billion dollars into building the town and its centerpiece university in the middle of the Corkscrew Swamp, 20 miles northeast of Naples. Calling the place a ticket to heaven, he had boasted that birth control and pornography wouldn't be allowed. Ave Maria would be the epicenter of an American Catholic revival: "a saint factory" that would "change the world," he promised.

But there has been trouble in paradise. Construction has halted, leaving half-built subdivisions to mildew in the tropical heat. Lawsuits and a federal investigation have dogged Monaghan. Ave Maria University's ambitious athletic program fell to pieces amid an unholy trinity of f bombs, firings, and defections. And the town's hidden, anti-democratic, and perhaps unconstitutional origins have been splashed across local news. Instead of a city on a hill, Ave Maria has become a place of secrets and sectarianism.

After years of fighting for the soul of Ave Maria, Stuart — a Cuban émigré who left that island in 1967 — is now battling to become the Republican Party's candidate for U.S. Senate. Her quixotic campaign has reignited interest in her bizarre and scandal-plagued hometown, just as community leaders try to rebrand Ave Maria as a normal place of faith and fun. But like a latter-day Martin Luther, Stuart is still anathema in these parts.

"I've never experienced such hostility in my life, except for in communist Cuba," she tells New Times. "If someone had warned me of what I was getting into, I never would have come here."

Stuart's mix of Catholic ardor and First Amendment fire was forged as a child in Cuba. She was born Marielena Montesino near Havana in 1956. Her father, Heriberto, was a schoolteacher and proud Catholic. After the revolution's triumph in 1959, he spoke out against the new government and was repeatedly thrown in jail. Marielena still remembers the police's heavy knock on her front door. Once, her six-foot-two father returned home from jail weighing just 112 pounds.

"The beatings and the torture and the hunger really took a toll on his body," she says. Still, Heriberto taught his daughter to fiercely defend her faith and beliefs against all odds. "Everything in Cuba was looked at as a threat," she remembers. "The question was always: 'Can this undermine the revolution?' "

Heriberto took the family to Los Angeles in 1967, when Marielena was 11. The multicultural chaos of the city taught her to value one thing above all: freedom of speech. "In L.A., I was friends with Republicans and Democrats, Catholics and non-Catholics," she says. "We often disagreed, but we were civil with one another."

Marielena learned English and soon became a translator for business conferences, first in California and then in Europe. She visited France and Greece to learn those countries' languages as well. Then, while gardening in L.A., she met George Stuart, a Lutheran 11 years her senior. They married in 1996 and had two children. But several years after their second child, a son, was born, the couple began yearning for a quieter place to raise a family. Then they saw advertisements for Ave Maria.

It seemed like no other town in America: a Catholic citadel designed to withstand and combat the increasingly murky moral landscape around it. Monaghan's vision had begun to materialize nearly a decade earlier, when he sold his Domino's Pizza empire for $1 billion and then founded a small Catholic college in his native Ann Arbor, Michigan, with the name Ave Maria — for the virgin he prayed to nightly. But his plans to merge the college with a law school and grow the whole thing into the nation's premier Catholic university took a hit in 2002, when Ann Arbor Township rejected his plans for a 250-foot crucifix.

So Monaghan began searching for land near Naples, where he had often vacationed. In 2003, Barron Collier Companies — one of the state's largest real estate developers — made Monaghan an offer he couldn't refuse: nearly 1,000 acres to build his university, for free. In return, the company would develop nearby land. Monaghan invested $100 million into the town, planning to recycle real estate profits into the new school.

By the time the Stuarts arrived in 2007, Ave Maria was carved into several subdivisions, each stocked with identical Spanish-villa-style houses. The couple bought one to the northeast of the town's central piazza for $317,000. The 13-foot golden cross atop Monaghan's garish church glinted at them from across a narrow lake.

But Marielena quickly began to feel out of place. She soon realized that as many as half of the roughly 2,000 residents had followed Monaghan or the university from Michigan. Some seemed to consider the man a saint.

Stuart wasn't so sure. On her first Sunday in Ave Maria, she tried taking her preschooler son and teenaged daughter to mass at the church in the center of town. It was locked — the result of a battle between Monaghan and the bishop of the Diocese of Venice, Frank Dewane. Monaghan had built himself a church; now he wanted to name his own pastor. The bishop refused to let him. The building had been largely unused for a year. "The only times they would open it was for tours or concerts," Stuart says. "And that was so people could donate money." The church now has a priest but to this day retains its ignominious title as the world's only "quasi oratory" — uncertified church.

In the spring, Stuart received another shock, this time in the mail. It was a $1,287 bill to be paid to something called the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District. Like many of her neighbors, Stuart had no idea what that was.

Gov. Jeb Bush had signed the stewardship into law June 17, 2004. As with other special districts in Florida, it had been designed to give the developer — in this case Barron Collier Companies — government-like powers over the town as it was being built. But the special district's charter hid an unprecedented secret.

"Even someone really versed in Florida law would think that it was just like any development district," says Liam Dillon, a reporter back then who covered Ave Maria for the Naples Daily News. "But it was really a novel concept: Barron Collier could control the town forever."

For decades, Florida developers had been required to cede control within ten years. But in the case of Ave Maria, the decision when — or if — to turn town government over to its residents lay entirely in the hands of the Southwest Florida land magnate. And the company seemed in no rush to let the townspeople vote.

"We could control it in perpetuity," wrote Barron Collier Vice President Tom Sansbury, according to a 2003 internal memo obtained by Dillon.

Ave Maria developers had more power than anyone since Julia Tuttle or Henry Flagler during the land boom at the turn of the 20th Century. Even worse, Ave Maria residents were kept in the dark about the controversial arrangement, even as they were spending their life savings to move to the Catholic enclave.

"Nobody really understood what was going on," Dillon says. "Even the [state] legislators didn't know, and they voted on it." In a three-part series titled "Ave Maria: A Town Without a Vote, Now and Forever," Dillon questioned the constitutionality of the town's charter.

Stuart was asking herself the same thing. "It's taxation without representation," she says. So she began attending public meetings to demand answers. The stewardship board, however, wouldn't respond to her queries. "This special district is a recipe for corruption," she adds.

Barron Collier CEO Blake Gable says he has no desire to lord over Ave Maria, promising that residents will gain control "as soon as we sell enough property that they are majority landowners."

But Stuart says that at the current rate, that could take 458 years. In the meantime, she is the only one speaking up. "It's a company town," she says. "Who is going to speak out against Monaghan and Barron Collier when nearly everyone here works for them?"

Even after Tom Monaghan fired her, triggering seven hellish years of legal battles and a close call with bankruptcy, Katherine Ernsting still refers to her billionaire ex-boss by his first name. "Morality is black and white for Tom," she sighs over the phone from Ann Arbor. "He really does believe that people were trying to undermine him, including me."

Marielena Stuart wasn't the first person to question his bizarre vision — or pay for it. Five years before Stuart moved to Ave Maria, Monaghan began strong-arming employees and students to move there from Michigan. This led to scores of firings, a federal investigation, $259,000 in revoked financial aid, and a half-dozen lawsuits totaling roughly $2 million.

Ernsting was one of Monaghan's longest-serving employees. He hired her in 1997 to help run his charitable foundation and by 2003 had promoted her to the job of financial aid director for Ave Maria. The move to Florida was already under way, yet administrators promised Ernsting she could stay in Michigan until 2006.

But in the rush to relocate, Monaghan was breaking rules left and right. The new Ave Maria University in Naples wasn't yet accredited, so admissions and financial aid had to be handled by the Michigan office.

Soon Ernsting figured out that money and students were being illegally shuffled between the two schools. She warned her colleagues: "I think that could be fraud," and one complained to the U.S. Department of Education, which opened an investigation.

"They were pulling a lot of shenanigans," says now-retired DOE investigator Joseph Hajek. "The whole show was run by the one person, Tom Monaghan. Whatever he said went." Hajek soon began to suspect that federal Pell Grants were being funneled to a campus that Ave Maria had opened in San Marcos, Nicaragua, in 1999. "There was a lot of money going there, but they couldn't even prove that the kids were actually going there," Hajek says. "They would sign someone up, and then they'd be gone."

Ernsting says Ave Maria officials "thought they could just play dumb and ignore the whole thing." But she worked hard to gather documents and submitted the key ones to prosecutors.

In May 2004, the DOE ordered Ave Maria to pay back $259,000 in financial aid and fines, but Ernsting's cooperation and hustle kept prosecutors happy and staved off criminal charges. Yet she was fired, so several weeks later, she filed a whistleblower lawsuit. In a deposition, Monaghan claimed, "What [Ernsting] reported was slanted and erroneous and maybe even malicious."

"The whole thing was kind of a nightmare for me," says Ernsting, who nearly went bankrupt because Monaghan's lawyers delayed the trial for five years. "These were people that I loved. I still have very warm feelings for Tom Monaghan... but I knew brushing it under the rug wasn't right either." Monaghan declined to comment for this article.

Ernsting was just the first of at least five employees to sue Monaghan over the move to Florida. Stephen Safranek, who helped found the law school, complained to the American Bar Association that Monaghan wasn't acting in the school's best interests by relocating. He also argued that Monaghan had hidden his intentions to move and misled the ABA two years earlier when applying for accreditation.

The professor led a September 2006 faculty revolt against the move — and was quickly fired. Then, like Ernsting, he sued. "We had done everything right. We were poised to be one of the best law schools in the country," Safranek says. "But Monaghan's greed, his desire to say, 'Look what I'm going to do; I'm going to create this university in the middle of nowhere,' ruined it all."

Charlie Rice, a founding board member of Ave Maria law school and then a constitutional law professor at both Notre Dame and Ave Maria, agrees. "Monaghan just wanted to get rid of people who were not favorable to the move. He treated those guys outrageously. It was unconscionable."

Rice adds that, before leaving the law school, he warned Monaghan that his idea for a strictly Catholic town to host the university was impossible. "Tom had this concept of a place with no pornography, no contraceptives," he says. "I told him right up-front that there is no way he could do that. It would be unconstitutional."

Monaghan didn't listen.

On November 5, 2009, Marielena Stuart was packing her camera, crucifix, and pearls to attend a news conference about a $4 million donation to build an athletic center at the university when she checked her email. "Due to your recent history of being disruptive at meetings," the message from Ave Maria University's public relations firm said, "you are not invited to attend the press conference today." Stuart was baffled. What did her statements at town meetings have to do with the university? Is this even legal? she wondered.

Two sheriff's deputies and three security guards were waiting when she arrived at the Ave Maria student center. Their message was clear: Step foot on university property again and you'll be arrested. They escorted her from campus.

"This administration is [trying to] intimidate its residents and property owners," Stuart immediately vented on her blog. "[It] is a violation of our constitutional rights." A week later, she met with Fox 4 News and discussed what she saw as the university's hypocrisy and abusive behavior.

"What's going on here isn't Catholicism," she says now. "This town is built around the idiosyncrasies of one man: Tom Monaghan. It's madness."

Local reaction was swift and caustic. The Ave Herald, the town's online newspaper, invited readers to leave anonymous comments about Stuart's interview.

"The woman came across as an angry, bitter woman with a chip on her shoulder," one commenter wrote.

"I deduce that filling the news hole with this relatively weak story must mean there was not another family murder in Naples or gang rape in Immokalee," wrote another. "For that, I am grateful."

Stuart responds that the messages were left by "Monaghan's little soldiers here who are always willing to wage vicious, anonymous attacks."

Around that time, it came to light that Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation was going broke. During the 2008-09 school year, the university lost an estimated $16.4 million — more than twice the amount it had publicly revealed. Part of that debt was attributable to Monaghan's obsession with sports, which had already cost the school millions of dollars and several controversies. For a decade, the billionaire had dreamed of building a Catholic university football program that could crush Notre Dame.

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?"

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."

But there might be no pulling up from Ave Maria University's nosedive. Its law school, which is still in Naples, remains in rapid decline. This summer, only 11 of 23 of its graduates passed the Florida Bar exam. At less than 48 percent, it was the worst result in the state and nearly 20 percentage points behind its closest competitor. The Ave Maria campus, meanwhile, continues to be plagued by high attrition. "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have come here," one shy biology major says with a soft Southern twang. "Moving out here to the middle of nowhere was not the college experience I was looking for."

Towey might be reforming Ave Maria University, but there is little he can do for the town itself. There, the real baron is Barron Collier Companies, argues Georgia Hiller. The Republican Collier County commissioner suspects that the company — via its control of the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District — is siphoning money from other parts of the county. This summer, she ordered the county clerk to audit the district, but the results aren't in yet. "I was concerned about the accuracy of their numbers," she says. "Ave Maria is supposed to be an independent, self-supporting district. We should not be subsidizing it.

"Ave Maria is self-serving," she adds. "Obviously it's for Barron Collier's benefit, not anyone else's. And they are entitled to do it. If a business wants to make a profit, great. That's the American way. But you can't do it at the expense of the public."

Hiller describes Barron Collier as the county's "800-pound gorilla." She recently squared off with the company when she voted against enticing Maine-based biomedical group the Jackson Laboratory to Ave Maria. Barron Collier proposed giving the organization land for a research center if the state, county, and private donors would contribute a total of $380 million. "In effect, Jackson Labs wanted $380 million in cash for themselves, and Barron Collier would have been the indirect beneficiary," she says. The plan failed.

Gable, the Barron Collier CEO, claims Hiller's audit is politically motivated. "I have a lot more faith in the people who work for us than in her ability to understand a balance sheet or budget," he says, adding that her opposition to the Jackson Laboratory deal was "pretty ignorant." There are other signs that Ave Maria is leeching resources away from the county. On October 12, 2008, the town suffered its first truly violent crime. At 2:30 in the afternoon, two masked men, guns drawn, burst into Beckner Jewelry on the piazza. They quickly duct-taped owner Alan Beckner's feet, wrists, and mouth before stealing as much as $100,000 in jewelry.

But Ave Maria has no government of its own and no police force. It took county sheriffs at least 15 minutes to cover the 14 miles from Naples to the crime scene. By then, the thieves were long gone. Beckner was in shock.

"They had been casing the place for months," says one county employee who asked to remain anonymous. "The whole town was never set up for crime prevention. When we tried to give crime prevention classes, everything was pooh-poohed. They don't want to get bad news... What they are really looking for is to fleece the county taxpayers. They want us to baby-sit that place without any cost accruing to themselves."

But Monaghan hasn't escaped all of his bills. After a jury ruled in Katherine Ernsting's favor in May, the onetime pizza king settled with his ex-employee for more than $418,000. Two years ago, he paid out at least that much to Stephen Safranek.

Tony Turkovic, meanwhile, never fully rebounded from his two-week nightmare in Ave Maria. He transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas College near New York City but managed only five games and zero field goals.

At least he escaped Ave Maria. Marielena Stuart says she is stuck there — her house is worth a fraction of what she paid for it. She hasn't appeared in public in the town since December, when she attended a town hall meeting about the Jackson Laboratory deal. "They threatened to remove me if I didn't write my questions down on a slip of paper," she fumes. "Well, I won't ask my questions anonymously."

Bizarrely, Stuart is now running for Florida's Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Even though she has never held office and is best-known for her blog, she insists her campaign isn't about Ave Maria.

"I have nothing in common with this town," she says bitterly. "My house is here. It's on a lot. But my family and I have no connection to this town or the university." Stuart doesn't campaign in Ave Maria, and most of her neighbors aren't even aware she's running.

Yet she can't leave.

"It's a vicious town," Stuart says. "Once in, there is no way out."

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