Ave Maria University: A Catholic project 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 its one round window — a Cyclops's 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 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 the 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. Even 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.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.