Somewhere in Florida: ‘Pizza Pope’s’ Road to Heaven

There’s a place in Florida being built with the money you may have paid for a pizza once delivered to your home. Not the tip, the money for the pizza.

This place in Florida is the state’s newest town, Ave Maria, which Tom Monaghan is building on 5,000 acres in a former tomato field on the edge of the Everglades northeast of Naples, a few miles from Immokalee. He hopes the city, which emphasizes family values, will eventually have 30,000 residents.

You may not recognize the name of this man who has been dubbed by the British press as the ‘Dad of Pizza’. But he will recognize what made him famous: Domino’s Pizza. And, outside of Rome, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more devout Catholic. Some would say ‘rabid’ or ‘fanatic’, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Tom Monaghan’s story is a typical Horatio Alger story:

  • The father died of ulcers at the age of 29 when Tom was 4.
  • His mother put him in a Michigan orphanage run by Polish Catholic nuns, where his devotion to Catholicism became an obsession.
  • As a freshman in high school, he decided to become a priest, but a year later he was expelled from the seminary for, among other things, pillow fighting.
  • Back in public high school, he graduated 44th out of a class of 44. But his yearbook photo has this caption: ‘The harder I try to be good, the worse I get; but I can still do something sensational.
  • He dreamed of being an architect like his idol, Frank Lloyd Wright, but his poor grades and lack of money ruled him out.
  • So in 1956 he joined the Marine Corps, served three years, and hitchhiked from San Diego to Ypsilanti, MI, with only $15 in his pocket.
  • Six times he enrolled in college, only to become nothing more than a freshman.
  • In 1960, when he was 23, he and his brother borrowed $900 and bought their first pizzeria in Ypsilanti, near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a hotbed of pizza lovers. At first, he could choose home cooking: pizza, pizza or pizza. Extras were added later.
  • And yes, in that first year, he delivered his own pizzas. In fact, he met his wife while she was delivering pizza.

And as they say, the rest is history. As Domino’s grew, Monaghan’s wealth grew, despite many obstacles. “I don’t think anyone in business has had a harder time than me,” she recalls now. ‘My faith sustained me.’

And he played the role of a rich man. ‘I overdid it’ by buying mundane things, he says. He started by buying him in 1983 from the Detroit Tigers baseball team. The team won the World Series the following year, prompting the publication of his 1986 autobiography ‘Pizza Tiger’. He also bought collections of Frank Lloyd Wright cars and buildings.

It was then that he became very active in Catholic education, including pro-life causes that led to pickets at his Ann Arbor stores, and decided that the reason God put him on Earth was to get people to Heaven. . He sold the Tigers. And finally, in 1998, he sold Domino’s for a billion dollars.

Since then, his outspoken views have dogged his proselytizing efforts. He has become a lightning rod for all kinds of controversies, including pro-life causes and opposition to homosexuality. Outwardly, he doesn’t seem to mind.

Moreover, his Ave Maria project has not escaped controversy. What sparked the controversy here were his early declarations that ‘there will be no pornographic TV in Ave Maria Town’ and (to paraphrase) there will be no birth control or adult magazines in drugstores. He had to dodge those statements and finally admitted that such products will not be banned.

So what led him to establish not only a pro-life community near Naples, but also the first Catholic university built in the United States in 50 years, one he hopes will one day rival Notre Dame?

In short, Ann Arbor politicians rejected his plans to build the university there. Rural Collier County, with a population more conservative and more willing to accept his views on the purpose of life (he hoped), seemed a more likely place, a place in Florida with which he was familiar.

The economic climate has delayed construction on Ave Maria, but progress remains impressive. Already there is the new $240 million Ave Maria University, which opened in 2007, hoping to attract 5,000 students. Now he has 600.

Dominating the landscape is a $24 million, 60,000-square-foot, 10-story glass-arched steel and stone church. It has the largest crucifix in the country in stained glass, one with a 60-foot-tall bleeding Jesus. And 1,100 seats, making it one of the largest Catholic churches in the United States.

By building the Ave Maria, Monaghan is obviously trying to use his millions to pave his and others’ paths to Heaven. “I want to go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can,” he says. ‘I don’t want to go to hell.’

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