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City of God
Tom Monaghan’s coming Catholic utopia

It takes courage — or recklessness, or contempt — to stand inside Boston College High School and condemn the state of Catholic education. For nearly 150 years, BC High has been a prized destination for the sons of local Catholic families; the list of notable alumni includes politicians (former state Senate president William Bulger) and intellectuals (former New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath), and being a "Triple Eagle" — a graduate of BC High, Boston College, and Boston College Law School — is still a potent credential in Boston’s corridors of power.

If Tom Monaghan knows this history, he doesn’t care. It’s a Saturday in March, and Monaghan — founder of Domino’s Pizza, former owner of the Detroit Tigers, and self-appointed savior of American Catholicism — is addressing an overflow crowd packed into BC High’s gymnasium for the first annual Boston Catholic Men’s Conference. Monaghan doesn’t seem like a revolutionary: his voice is gentle, his graying hair mussed, and he leans against the podium for support as he speaks. But his rhetoric is incendiary. Catholic schools are failing, Monaghan announces; on key issues (religious observance, sexual behavior, opposition to abortion), graduates of Catholic colleges and universities are actually less orthodox than their co-religionists who attend secular institutions. The problem is especially bad at elite schools, which are academically rigorous but spiritually impoverished. Yet Monaghan brings good news as well. At Ave Maria, the university he’s building in southwest Florida, things will be different. In a few years, the median SAT score will be higher than that at any other Catholic institution; even better, the dorms will be single-sex, a quarter of the classes will be taught by "wholly orthodox" priests, and students will be urged to become priests and nuns.

Bold talk — but the most dramatic part of Monaghan’s speech is yet to come. Ave Maria won’t be just a university, he continues. It will also be a new town, built from scratch, in which the wickedness of the world will be kept at bay. "We’ve already had about 3500 people inquire on our Web site about buying a home there — you know, they’re all Catholic," Monaghan says excitedly. "We’re going to control all the commercial real estate, so there’s not going to be any pornography sold in this town. We’re controlling the cable system. The pharmacies are not going to be able to sell condoms or dispense contraceptives." A private chapel will be located within walking distance of each home. At the stunning church in the center of town, Mass will be said hourly, seven days a week, from 6 a.m. on. "So," Monaghan concludes, with just a hint of understatement, "it’ll be a unique town." As he exits the stage, the applause is thunderous.

Right now, few people grasp the scope and significance of the Ave Maria project. Monaghan has been well known for years, and his forays into higher education — including Ave Maria University (temporarily located in Naples, Florida) and Ave Maria College and Law School (in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the time being) have received a fair amount of press. But the town of Ave Maria, which may become Monaghan’s most significant endeavor, has gone largely unnoticed. The earnest young usher who greeted me at BC High wasn’t aware of Monaghan’s urban plan; neither, until a few weeks ago, was Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

This may be by design. The town’s Web site, www.avemaria.com, minimizes its religious component, and Monaghan’s spokesman, Robert Falls, says it’s too early to discuss the way faith will shape life there. (Monaghan did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.)

Why the reticence? Maybe because the Ave Maria Tom Monaghan envisions — a Catholic hub in which opportunities for sin will be strictly circumscribed, and from which the truths of orthodox Catholicism will emanate throughout America and the wider world — may be illegal, and will certainly be controversial. If Monaghan’s dream comes true, Ave Maria will, in effect, become America’s first gated Catholic community. The decades-old efforts of American Catholics to assimilate will be reversed, and American religious pluralism will face a serious challenge.

What’s more, the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI has many conservative Catholics hopefully anticipating a smaller, purer, more obedient Church. If Ave Maria becomes a reality, it will become the American embodiment of this ideal — a combative bastion of orthodoxy in a sea of dissent and deviance.

In other words, the stakes are high. And the less scrutiny Monaghan’s utopian plan gets in its early stages, the more likely it is that it will come to pass.

Empire building

Monaghan’s story is a remarkable one, improbable and uplifting enough to inspire a Ron Howard movie. His father died, on Christmas Eve, when Monaghan was four years old; his mother’s poverty caused Monaghan to spend much of his childhood in foster homes and a Catholic orphanage. He entered the seminary in ninth grade — moved, Monaghan says, by a desire to "seek the salvation of souls" — but was soon kicked out for unruly behavior. A few years later, he finished last in his high-school class, graduating only after he tearfully begged a teacher to intercede on his behalf.

As Monaghan tells it, sheer dumb luck helped transform him from a ne’er-do-well into one of America’s most successful executives. ("I owe all my success to stupidity," he likes to say.) After dropping out of the University of Michigan, Monaghan joined the Armed Forces, accidentally enlisting in the Marines instead of the Army; his stint in the Corps built his confidence, and ended up being "the best thing that ever happened in my life." When the fledging pizza business Monaghan and his brother founded in 1960 was struggling, the brother bailed out: in exchange for their delivery car, Monaghan gained sole control of what would become Domino’s. The company scrapped its unprofitable six-inch and nine-inch pies when a bunch of workers called in sick one day; earnings immediately skyrocketed, and a new business model was born.

The 1980s were very, very good to Monaghan. Domino’s store count surpassed 5000, and the company became the nation’s largest privately held restaurant chain. In 1983, Monaghan bought the Detroit Tigers, his hometown baseball team; a year later, the Tigers won the World Series. In 1986, the International Franchise Association named Monaghan its Entrepreneur of the Year. (By 1999, he was number 271 on the Forbes 400 — the annual listing of America’s richest individuals — with an estimated net worth of $950 million.)

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Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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