By Chuck Strouse
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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 teenage 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" — privately owned Catholic 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. Like 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 underway, yet administrators promised Ernsting she could stay in Michigan until 2006.