NAPLES, Fla. (AP) The nation's first new Roman Catholic university in four decades, Ave Maria University only has 122 students now. But its leaders are aiming high.
The school, which opened its doors last fall, already has outlined plans to build a prairie-style campus that surrounds a huge, gleaming church expected to be among the nation's largest and to offer a top-notch liberal-arts education that remains faithful to the church's teachings.
''The bottom line is to help people get to heaven,'' said Thomas Monaghan, the school's founder. ''And I feel the best way to do that as a Catholic is to help strengthen the Catholic church.''
The school's plans fit with Monaghan's ambitious character. A former owner of the Detroit Tigers, Monaghan built the Domino's Pizza chain and has pledged $240 million of the fortune he amassed to construct the campus, with another $300 million to establish an endowment.
Administrators say the school, which is not tied to any religious order or diocese, could offer an alternative to some Catholic colleges and universities that have become more secular.
Ave Maria which has a sister college of 250 students in Michigan represents one of the few Catholic institutions to open since the modernizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, but its spirit looks back to pre-Vatican II days.
''I think a kind of culture of questioning and dissent arose and there was a loss of confidence among the Catholic hierarchy, the Catholic priesthood and the Catholic intellectuals,'' after the council, said Nicholas Healy, the university's president. ''I think the pendulum is now swinging back.''
''There is a regaining of confidence in the church teaching, in the tremendous legacy of the Catholic intellectual life over the centuries,'' he said.
The clerical sex abuse crisis that has battered the church for more than two years only points out the need for a place like Ave Maria, Healy said. ''We see that (abuse) as a symptom of the failure to teach and accept Catholic doctrine on sexual morality,'' he said.
Ave Maria opened its doors to more than 100 students in September on an interim campus originally intended as a retirement community. The cream-colored clubhouse serves as the main building, housing administrative offices, a cafeteria and a meeting room where classes and daily Mass are held.
Students said the total cost of under $18,000 a year for tuition, room and board and fees was more affordable than many Catholic colleges and described a ''pioneer'' spirit of attending a university during its first year. The school hopes to eventually enroll 5,000 students.
''Here you just grab a couple of other students who are interested in the idea and you can pretty much put together an intramural for the whole college because we're so small,'' said 23-year-old senior John Chilimigras, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., the school's first student body president.
Most of the students are devout Catholics. About half attend Mass every day and students, faculty and administrators pause three times a day when the campus' Angelus bell rings, signaling a time of prayer.
Last September, a group of students started holding nightly ''rosary walks,'' proceeding around the campus while praying the rosary.
''It's awesome to be able to live your faith and also receive a good education at the same time,'' said Paul Schreiner, an 18-year-old freshman from Tiffin, Ohio.
The new campus is scheduled to open in the summer of 2006.
At the center will be the church, which Monaghan first sketched on a tablecloth during a meal at a Naples restaurant. The Oratory of Ave Maria will offer seating for more than 3,300 congregants, feature a 60-foot crucifix embedded into its facade and anchor the campus and surrounding community.
Another part of the project includes a town, also called Ave Maria, and a golf course. Environmentalists have expressed concern that the development will threaten a nearby national refuge for the endangered Florida panther, though school officials say they will control growth.
Monaghan's dream has already drawn thousands of admirers.
The school has 10 ''founders'' clubs of supporters in Florida, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., and plans to open new organizations in Georgia and Texas this month.
During the past 18 months, Ave Maria has received contributions from about 25,000 donors, raising about $3 million. The school recently picked up pledges of $5 million apiece from John Donahue, chairman of Pittsburgh-based Federated Investors Inc., and an anonymous donor from New Orleans. Two others have pledged $1 million.
''Others recognize that bad things are happening in the church and that education is not what it has been and should be,'' said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and the university's chancellor. ''So they see this as an opportunity to start something fresh and return to the roots.''
On the Net:
Ave Maria University: http://www.naples.avemaria.edu/
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