Ave Maria University (AMU) was founded by former Domino’s Pizza owner Tom Monaghan in 2003 as a direct response to Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization.
“Ave Maria’s Catholic identity is palpable in every aspect of its campus life from academics to student activities,” said Michael Dauphinais, chair of the Theology Department. “The faculty and students enjoy being at a university where they possess the freedom to be Catholic; non-Catholics enjoy the wholesome and supportive environment.”
AMU has quickly built a national reputation for its strong Catholic identity, largely because of the notoriety and devotion of its founder. What is less known is AMU’s academic quality, which is quite good.
Built from the ground up on a tract of farmland, AMU moved from Michigan to its permanent site in 2007, adjacent to the new town of Ave Maria and approximately 25 miles east of Naples, Florida. “It was the easiest place to attract students and faculty to,” said Monaghan, who has donated much of his wealth to the University and owns a half-interest in the town and its development.
AMU now has 1,068 undergraduate students, most of them Catholic. Relative to other new institutions, AMU has experienced dramatic growth, with the undergraduate student body doubling over the past six years. Students come from 47 states and more than a dozen countries, with over 50 percent of the students hailing from outside the state of Florida. The University recently expanded its academic offerings to include 29 majors. The University has many students who participate in intercollegiate athletics on 16 different teams.
In February 2011, AMU welcomed its second president H. James Towey, who had been president of St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania and also a federal government official responsible for grants to faith-based programs. Under President Towey's leadership, the University has experienced significant growth in its enrollment and the number of offered majors and has transitioned to a period of financial sustainability.
The University is governed by a 24-member board of trustees consisting of both laity and clergy, but all must be Catholic. Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, is an ex officio
board member. He officially recognized AMU as Catholic in 2011, following a period of review.
Catholicism is exhibited throughout the University’s architecture, art, and curriculum. The centrality of the Oratory and the availability of the Sacraments highlight the school’s focus. Beautiful religious art is found throughout the 200,000-volume Canizaro Library.
The newly opened Mother Teresa Project Exhibition Hall offers students, tourists, pilgrims and area residents the opportunity to learn more about "the saint of the gutters". Items for public viewing include handwritten letters by Mother Teresa, a crucifix from her own rosary, photographs, original publications from her State funeral in India and Beatification ceremony at the Vatican, and other items.
Both students and faculty speak of the academically challenging coursework at Ave Maria. The University has introduced a successful Honors Program and also offers many forms of academic support. Among the students we have spoken to, they simply love the quality of their classes.
Half of the 128 undergraduate credits required for graduation must be within the core curriculum. All students take 16 core courses, including three in philosophy and theology, as well as courses in math, history, politics, literature, foreign language, and the natural sciences. These are intensive four-credit courses, instead of three-credit courses.
Beginning in 2015-2016, the University offers 30 undergraduate majors, with programs in the humanities, the sciences, music and professional areas. The most popular majors are biology, business, psychology, and theology. New majors have been added in finance, environmental science, health sciences, and nursing.
All of the theology faculty take the Oath of Fidelity and have the mandatum
from the local bishop. Notably, the theology and philosophy faculty includes three members of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Dr. Michael Waldstein, an expert on the Theology of the Body; Dr. Michael Pakaluk, translator and interpreter of Aristotle's Ethics
; and Dr. Stephen Long, a Thomist and moral theologian.
Students can attend lectures integrating Catholic theology with particular disciplines as a series of panels including faculty from various departments, titled “Honors Integrated Colloquia.” They can also study at the University’s program in Rome.
Five priests serve the campus. Several Dominican religious sisters also assist the campus and the nearby private K-12 Catholic school.
AMU offers various liturgical styles. In addition to an Extraordinary Form Mass each Sunday and twice during the week, a variety of daily and Sunday Masses are offered in Ordinary Form Latin and English, including one featuring charismatic praise and worship music. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is available five days a week.
According to Father Robert Garrity, "The acronym MARC summarizes the spirituality on campus: Mass, Adoration, Rosary, and Confession. The overwhelming majority of Catholic students attend Sunday Mass, and many students attend daily Masses and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We encourage, but do not require, students to participate."
Students describe a strong spiritual life that includes various devotional groups, approximately 15 voluntary “households” of students supporting each other in prayer and service, and student activity clubs such as the Communion and Liberation, Peer Ministry Team, and Marian consecration. Students impressively maintain perpetual Eucharistic Adoration in the University chapel as well as a daily rosary walk. Students also have joined mission trips to Calcutta, Mexico City, and Haiti as part of the Mother Teresa Project.
At least 40 men and women who have attended AMU are now discerning priesthood and religious life, and 12 alumni have been ordained priests.
The dean of students conducts a senior exit interview with each student. The one comment heard most often is, “I came here with my parents’ faith, but am leaving here with a deeper faith of my own.”
With exceptions for students over 23 years of age or whose families reside within a commutable distance, it is University policy for all students to live on campus.
Residence halls are separated by gender, but the University recently loosened its restrictions on visiting dorm rooms. As a reinstitution of an old policy, students may now visit the rooms of the opposite sex — with registration upon entering the residence hall and doors propped fully open — on Friday and Saturday evenings until midnight and on Sunday afternoons. In common areas, hours for visiting are until 1:00 a.m.
AMU "seek[s] to promote true freedom in Christian behavior," according to the Residence Life Mission Statement. Students are encouraged to dress in a way that "promotes the virtue of chastity and encourages of students a mature exercise of free will in pursuit of this virtue." The University sponsors discussions and classes to promote Christian virtue and teach Theology of the Body.
Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Cosden said, "The policies, procedures, and mission of Residence Life aim to strengthen the campus community and to foster genuine and lasting friendship among the students at AMU."
Alcohol is allowed with limitations, and there is no campus curfew. Those who violate the alcohol policy are sanctioned with community hours and/or fines, plus educational training, mentorship, and counseling for repeat violations.
The town of Ave Maria provides a number of convenient stores and services including a large grocery store, a few restaurants, and a pub. Due to the size, everyone tends to know everyone, and students and faculty often travel around campus and town by bike.
However, there are some inconveniences: the nearest hotel is 26 miles away, and the nearest hospital is about 20 miles northwest of the campus, although local emergency medical services are available for serious incidents. Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers is approximately 45 minutes away. Off-campus employment is limited, but growing with the newly-opened medical manufacturing plant of Arthex, Inc. that employs more than 1,000 people.
More than 60 student clubs, organizations, ministries, outreach efforts, and households offer an abundance of activities that include athletic clubs (such as running, ice skating, swing dance, rugby, and fishing) and academic clubs (such as newspaper, writing, film, and business).
The University’s 16 varsity teams compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) in baseball, basketball, cheerleading/dance, cross country, football, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, and volleyball, and women's lacrosse. Students can also participate in a variety of club and intramural sports with the Papist Rugby Club among the most popular.
Much of the student body is engaged in some form of service work. The nearby Hispanic farming community of Immokalee is one of the poorest regions in the country and affords students numerous opportunities for service, including a food and clothing bank, soup kitchen, Christmas toy and shoe collection, Habitat for Humanity, and youth ministry.
Many Saturdays, students travel to Naples and Fort Myers to pray and minister outside an abortion business. Students for Life is the most popular club on campus, and more than 200 students attend the March for Life in Washington, D.C., each year.
The Bottom Line
AMU is a young institution that has been under intense scrutiny from both the media and the Church, largely because of Monaghan’s high profile as the multimillionaire who built and sold Domino’s Pizza. But there has also been a lot of interest in the grand vision for a major Catholic university that will one day rival the University of Notre Dame.
Now responsible for fulfilling a somewhat more practical vision in a tough economy, President Towey says the University has survived “the pains of childbirth,” and it has emerged a quite attractive university for students. Planning to grow to 1,500 to 2,000 students in its first phase, the University today enjoys a close-knit community in a small campus town, where it is common to run into professors at the Smoothie shop or the supermarket. The European-style town with education, faith, and art at its center is something of an oasis.
When you take into account the unswerving promotion of Catholic values, the strong core curriculum, and the presence of an impressive and faithful faculty, Ave Maria stands as an exciting new option available to American Catholics today.
“They’ve raised something up for the glory of God, and the good of students,” says President Towey of his predecessors. “Ave Maria is a prototype of what Catholic education in the 21st century can be.”