APLES, Fla - On a remote 750-acre site near the Everglades, Ave Maria University, the nation's first new Roman Catholic university in four decades, is about to rise from the fields of peppers and tomatoes that stretch to the horizon.
The founder of Ave Maria, Tom Monaghan, is better known as the founder of Domino's Pizza. He has grand plans for the university: majors as varied as theology and hotel management; a Division I football team; three golf courses, including one for donors only; and a new town, Ave Maria, with a commercial center joining the campus.
But his mission is as much religious as educational.
"For 25 years, I've felt the need for a school with more spirituality," said Mr. Monaghan, who has committed $200 million to the university. "The reason God created us was to earn heaven, so we could be with him, and my goal is to help more people get to heaven. You can't follow the rules of God unless you know what they are and why they are. At some Catholic universities, students graduate with their religious faith more shaky than when they arrive."
Ave Maria will be far more conservative than most of the nation's 235 Catholic colleges and universities. While it will be independent of the church, as the major Catholic universities are, it will have no coed dorms and no gay-support groups. Although attending Mass will not be required, Mr. Monaghan says he expects most students to go regularly.
"Ave Maria is for students whose faith is central to their lives," he said. "Maybe 10 percent of Catholics would be interested in it. Seventy-five percent of Catholics don't practice their faith right now. I hope we can do something about that."
Many Catholic educators are uneasy about Ave Maria, irritated that Mr. Monaghan would start his own university rather than support an existing Catholic college and annoyed at his broad criticism of Catholic education.
"There has been concern among the colleges and their representatives, that they are so dismissive of the rest of us," said Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Some critics say Ave Maria reflects Mr. Monaghan's conservative political agenda more than any religious or educational need.
"Tom Monaghan has the agenda of a right-wing Republican, and he happens to confuse that with the teachings of the Catholic Church," said Richard P. McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theology professor. "I wish he had spent this money the way a really good Catholic would: helping the poor; helping inner-city schools, which are being suffocated through lack of money; helping the aged and the infirm. Those are the teachings of Jesus Christ."
Nonetheless, Mr. Monaghan's vision has attracted support from many prominent Catholic conservatives, including William J. Bennett, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, who has agreed to teach or speak at Ave Maria.
"I'm a Catholic; I'm a great admirer of Tom Monaghan; and a good case can be made for a traditional, strongly proud Catholic university," Dr. Bennett said. "There's a lot of Catholic universities that you wouldn't know were Catholic."
Ave Maria's administrators are conservative Catholics: Father Joseph D. Fessio, the chancellor, was at the center of a dispute last year at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution he attacked for policies like hiring openly gay administrators and letting students perform "The Vagina Monologues" during Lent.
Just how closely Catholic universities must hew to the teachings of the church has been a vexing issue for decades, heating up with the pope's 1990 statement on Catholic higher education, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," a Latin phrase meaning "From the Heart of the Church" that appears on Ave Maria's logo.
Highly regarded institutions like Georgetown, Notre Dame and Boston College balance their quest for first-rate scholarship from a diverse faculty and a diverse student body against their commitment to a strong religious identity. About a third of the students at Catholic colleges are not Catholics.
"There's a great range in Catholic institutions," Dr. Hellwig said. "That variety dates to the 1960's, when the Second Vatican Council opened much more positive relations to the modern world of science, technology and politics. Before Vatican II, regulations about what students could read excluded a lot of modern literature and philosophy."
At Ave Maria University, which received provisional state licensing last month, all students will take at least three theology courses.
Until the new campus is built, the university will use an interim campus in Naples, an unfinished assisted-care facility that will accommodate 200 full-time students by September.
The permanent campus is half an hour northeast of Naples's groomed golf courses, near Immokalee, a struggling town with many of the region's poorest field hands. While the plans still face several regulatory hurdles, including environmental ones, local officials have welcomed Ave Maria as a source of jobs, cultural events and sports.
The permanent campus, expected to open in 2006 with about 600 students and grow to 5,000, will be built on land donated by the Barron Collier Companies, real estate developers that saw the university as an attractive amenity for the town it was planning. Barron Collier and Mr. Monaghan will each have a half interest in the town development, and Mr. Monaghan said his profits would go toward endowing Ave Maria.
It is an unusual collaboration. While some developers have built elementary schools to attract young parents, and some retirement communities have been built in college towns where residents can attend classes, Ave Maria seems to be the first American university to be built in tandem with a town.
Mr. Monaghan says that he sees great synergy in the model and adds that it is not all that new. "There's Oxford and Cambridge, I suppose."
The Florida university is not Mr. Monaghan's first educational venture. In 1998, he opened Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., and several of its faculty members are moving to Florida. The college, which has 230 students, receives no federal money, but students are free to seek federal aid.
A year later, he opened Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the inaugural address at the law school, which won accreditation last year, and Robert H. Bork, a former federal judge, is a tenured member of the faculty, teaching a moral foundations course. Mr. Monaghan also took over a former Baptist college in Nicaragua in 2000 and remade it as the Ave Maria College of the Americas.
Mr. Monaghan, the former owner of the Detroit Tigers, was born in Ann Arbor in 1937, and originally hoped to build his university there. He settled on Naples, his longtime vacation spot, after Ann Arbor officials turned down his zoning request.
He is, in many ways, a study in contrasts. He displayed a taste for flashy cars and elaborate mansions for years, then more recently decided to use his fortune to further his religious goals. He says he has enormous reverence for higher education, but admits he was never much of a student.
"I wanted to be a priest, but I got kicked out of seminary," he said. "I'm not one of those people who likes to study. If I'm not interested, I can't stay awake for more than a couple of pages. Then I wanted to be an architect. I started the pizza place to get money to go to back to school."
His commitment to the most traditional model of Catholicism was honed by the nuns at the St. Joseph Home for Boys, where he spent much of his boyhood after his father died. It continued throughout his business career, so much so that the National Organization for Women boycotted Domino's because of his opposition to abortion.
Since selling Domino's to Bain Capital Inc. for about $1 billion in 1998, Mr. Monaghan has turned his energies to selling Catholicism, through groups that he hopes will spread nationwide the way his pizza franchises did. His fellowship group for Catholic executives, Legatus (Latin for ambassador) has more than 1,700 members, he said.
"There are chapters of Legatus all over the country, meeting monthly for Mass and fellowship and spiritual speakers," he said. "I've started a Founders Club for Ave Maria, which already has 5,000 members contributing at least $10 a month. I'd love to get 15,000-20,000 members in chapters that would meet all over the country. A university has such big impact on the church and on society."