Rendering courtesy of Ave Maria University

Ave Maria University and town will include a landmark church 150 feet tall and a 60-foot, red-tinted glass cross with a 40-foot body of Christ. The church, which was designed by Cannon Design of New York, will be comprised of glass, steel and aluminum. It will house 14 confessionals, one for each station of the cross, and burial crypts designed to hold ashes.

With no height limitation in view, Ave Maria officials have the freedom to build high to the heavens.

And that's exactly what they plan to do.

A landmark church 150 feet tall and a 60-foot red-tinted glass cross with a 40-foot body of Christ were among the designs that Ave Maria officials revealed Wednesday during a press conference at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in North Naples.

After a brief introduction from a table of men in dark suits, cream drapes were removed from 12 boards to reveal the plans for the first phase of the Catholic university and town. Collier County commissioners didn't see those renderings when approving the development's first phase during Tuesday's commission meeting.

Camera shutters clicked in unison and television cameras focused on the force behind Ave Maria, the founder of Domino's Pizza, Tom Monaghan, who sat quietly and peered away as people admired the display like pieces of art.

The designs for the development, a joint venture between Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., included the student activities building, aerial pictures of the campus, science, math and technology building, the library and the crucifix and landmark church — the first Catholic university to be built in the United States in 40 years.

Ave Maria officials said the church will have the largest seating capacity — more than 3,300 — of any Catholic church in the country and the largest crucifix in the world.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio said the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., can hold 6,400 people, but that includes standing room as well.

Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said there is no height limit for Ave Maria town and university.

Monaghan said he hasn't thought of the buildings to be higher than five stories.

In Collier County, churches are considered conditional uses so the height limit depends what zoning district they are in, said Lisa Koehler, spokeswoman for the Collier County Community Development Division. Steeples are excluded from height limitations.

If it's in a commercial area, a church could be 50 feet tall. If it's in a residential area, it could be 35 feet tall.

The height limit for multifamily buildings, such as condominiums, is 50, 75, or 100 feet, depending on the location.

Coletta said 150 feet is high, but, he said, "there will be nothing to compare it with. It's one of a kind. Not only the church, but the town itself."

Monaghan said the town, which could end up having 20,000 residents once the project is complete, will have many Catholic residents, therefore the town would need a large church.

One thought was to create smaller churches, but they chose to build one large church instead.

The church, designed by Cannon Design of New York, will be comprised of steel, aluminum and glass arches raised toward the heavens. It will house 14 confessionals, one for each station of the cross, and burial crypts designed to hold ashes.

Monaghan is a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture and the designs are similar to the work of Fay Jones, an American architect who apprenticed under Wright. Monaghan said Jones is famous for his chapel designs, which were inspired by cathedrals in Europe.

The church, he said, is there to remind the people "what we're about."

The landmark will be built facing east, Fessio said, because the east is where newness comes from.

"Catholic churches here have always been built facing the east," Fessio said. "We (designed) this church facing the rising sun. Our whole lives should be oriented toward the sun."

Coletta and Steve Hart, the Naples district representative for U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, also referred to religion during their brief speeches.

"God's work is getting ready to take place here," Hart said.

Ave Maria officials hope to break ground on old farm fields south of Immokalee by late fall or early winter. They intend to open the university in 2006.

The first phase covers 960 acres, but Ave Maria eventually could cover some 4,500 acres, an area almost twice the size of Golden Gate, according to plans. Plans for the first phase show the university will serve 1,200 students with classrooms, a technology center, student housing, a student recreation center, a performing arts center, five undergraduate dormitories, two graduate dormitories and a library that will hold 420,000 volumes of books. It will have 350 faculty staff members.

Unless the students live with their parents, they will be required to live on campus.

A private school for grades kindergarten to 12th grade and parks also are part of the first phase.

After the phase is complete, Monaghan expects it to have cost $240 million.

He compares the university to the size and quality of Princeton University. Faculty members will be well-respected, successful professors. One job candidate was recommended by two Nobel peace prize winners.

AMU has 25,000 donors across the United States, AMU President Nick Healy Jr. said. He said two families have committed $5 million apiece to the project and two additional gifts of $1 million apiece also have been promised as gifts.

"This is something God wants," Healy said. "He wants his mother honored."

The current interim campus is located in the Vineyards area in North Naples, where more than 100 students are studying the liberal arts curriculum including literature, philosophy, theology, history, mathematics, biology, economics, political science and classical languages.