The faint strains of the final hymn float through the air, breaking the silence of a steamy summer morning.
Community members slowly make their way out of Mass, lingering in front of the doorways and on the steps, chatting with neighbors and friends. Children play in the courtyard, weaving their way through the dozens of golf carts—a preferred mode of transportation in this eastern Collier County community—parked outside.
This is Sunday morning in Ave Maria, Florida. In a community built on faith, it is no surprise the church—the towering Ave Maria church—is located in the center of town. It is the glue that brings everything together, a gathering place for neighbors and an attraction for visitors.
In the early years, people moved to Ave Maria to live in a community where the Catholic faith was strong. “The Christian values were a huge part of it,” says Patricia Sette, an Ave Maria resident. “You can’t say it wasn’t. To live with likeminded people, not to retreat, was a real draw for people.”
Really the whole endeavor was a giant leap of faith. Faith that abandoned tomato fields could grow a crop of homes and businesses. Faith that a Catholic university no one had ever heard of could be the centerpiece of one of the biggest developments the county had ever seen rising up nearly 30 miles from anywhere. Faith that the idea wouldn’t be swallowed whole by endless rounds of controversy about how Catholicism and civic life can coexist in harmony.
Nearly a decade later, faith is still a driving factor for some. But developers say nowadays they rarely hear people call it a Catholic town. Instead, they say people are drawn to Ave Maria by the great amenities, affordable housing and good schools.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve created a great foundation for the people out there,” says Blake Gable, president of Barron Collier Co. “We’re able to provide Collier County with affordable value in their homes and a great place place to call home.”
The Ave Maria Oratory
You can’t talk about Ave Maria without talking about Ave Maria University.
The community was first conceived in 2002, when Barron Collier officials learned Tom Monaghan, the founder of Ave Maria University, wanted to build his university in Southwest Florida. He had already founded Ave Maria College in Michigan, but zoning laws wouldn’t allow him to build a larger campus there.
He wanted to move south, and he needed thousands of acres of land. Barron Collier Co. had the land and saw an opportunity to develop a community in the eastern part of Collier County. The company took a chance.
But building a community from scratch isn’t a small undertaking. The county was in the process of writing development rules for the company’s rural lands, and Ave Maria developers effectively became the guinea pigs.
“It was just a complex process,” Gable says. “At one point I think we had 78 different permits. We had dozens and dozens of permits required before we could put a shovel in the ground to do the first thing.”
The town was to be built on about 8 square miles of land. Barron Collier donated 905 acres to the Ave Maria University Foundation for the university, which was being built simultaneously. The company set aside about 27 square miles for conservation.
The process of building a town seemed never-ending. Dozens of permits needed to be approved by state and local agencies. The state legislature needed to approve an enabling act, allowing the developers to create a governing framework.
“This was building a town from scratch,” says Gable. “(We had to consider) things that people don’t think about when they buy a home. How are you going to get rid of the trash? What’s the community going to look like? What’s it going to look like in 50, 100 years?”
It took five years to birth the town. The first person moved into Ave Maria on June 30, 2007. More soon followed, intrigued by the idea of being part of something new and exciting.
Patricia Sette is one of the town’s early settlers.
She and her husband, David Shnaider, moved to the community in 2007. They were two of the first people to move in, purchasing a condominium in the town center. They moved from Massachusetts, where they still spend some of their time, and were excited by the prospect that Ave Maria would eventually be a town where people would be able to work, live and play.
But while that was the goal, it was far from the case when she and her husband first arrived.
“It was so empty, you couldn’t believe it,” she says about the early days. “It was like we had moved into a stage set. At night, you would look out the window, and there were no other lights on.”
There wasn’t a grocery store. There was the university book store, a pack and ship, and a few other stores, but not much else. Companies that had planned to open a location in the eastern Collier County community didn’t, at least not at first, because of the economic downturn.
“That first year, there were many times that I thought my loved ones would have sent mental help,” she jokes. “It was so isolated. It was an unsettling time.”
And it was made worse by a housing market crash.
The crash, fueled in large part by a subprime mortgage loan crisis, slowed growth in the region. Gable says developers saw “things were out of whack,” and started to prepare for a slowdown. They didn’t prepare, however, for the housing crisis that would sweep the nation.
“It didn’t go like anyone had hoped,” Gable says.
Florida was the epicenter for the housing crisis, and was one of the states leading the nation in foreclosures. Banks were reluctant to give loans, and development in Southwest Florida ground to a standstill.
And the town was not immune to controversy. Monaghan, a partner in the town’s development, floated the idea of banning contraceptives in the town. It drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, briefly casting an unwelcomed spotlight on the community. That ban was never put in place.
Ave Maria continued to plug ahead, albeit more slowly than residents had hoped. It took two years before Publix opened up its doors. About 100 people were lined up outside the supermarket back in 2009 when it opened, with the Naples Daily News reporting several Ave Maria University students camped out to be among the first in line.
The growth has continued over the years. There are barber shops and beauty salons, a dentist and clinic. The Pub & Grill at Ave Maria is a popular hangout for residents, as is The Bean of Ave Maria, a coffee shop located just steps away from the church.
“People are moving in all the time. It’s a much more active community,” Sette says. “It’s just an entirely different feeling. You get the sense it is growing.”
Nearly 10 years after the first resident moved in, Ave Maria still struggles to define itself.
Not quite a town, but more than a housing development, the community exists in the space in between. Enabling documents approved by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004 created the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District.
The five-member board is charged with levying an assessment and overseeing infrastructure and improvement projects. It isn’t the same as a city council or commission, and typically provides services over and above what the county provides.
Yet no community member has served on the board. Under the enabling act, the initial board of supervisors was nominated and elected by landowners. And when the district was created, affiliates of Barron Collier Co. owned all the land.
The makeup of the board left community members irked. Some questioned why they didn’t get the chance to vote, and others pondered whether developers would ever cede control of the board.
Developers have long said they do not intend to be in control of the board forever, and eventually community members will be elected to seats on the board.
Tom Peek, the chairman of the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District, said that transition is already happening.
In June, the district held a referendum asking whether certain members of the board should be elected by qualified electors—registered Florida voters living in the district. The referendum passed, and district staff is now beginning the process of moving toward an election. Right now, one seat is expected to be converted, but Peek fully expects more seats to be converted in the coming years.
While 10 years may seem like a long time to the residents, Peek, who has served on similar boards in the past, says the time span isn’t that abnormal. It all depends on how quickly a community grows.
Peek points to Pelican Bay as an example of a community converting its board of supervisors. He was the district engineer when Pelican Bay was first built and says it took about the same amount of time before the first resident came on the board. The entire board, he says, was converted within 20 years.
Jim Towey had no idea his home would eventually be in the heart of a huge neighborhood.
It was hard to imagine when he and his family moved to town five years ago. Their home was surrounded on three sides by “untouched nature.” A snake bit their dog (he survived, Towey is quick to point out), and a bear was often found roaming in their driveway.
“I should have paid closer attention to the blueprints,” says Towey, the president of Ave Maria University. “We were living in Phase 1. I didn’t pay much attention to where (Phase) 2, 3 and 4 were going.”
It was hard to imagine back then the growth spurt Ave Maria was about to go through. Towey says fewer than 40 homes were sold the year he moved in to town. In 2015 alone, about 300 homes were sold in the community.
“When I stood in my driveway, I would look straight over to the oratory. There was nothing between us,” says Towey. “Now, it’s chockful of homes.”
Many of the residents who live in Ave Maria work at the university. They’re professors or administrators, who bike or walk to work each day. Their kids go to Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, a K-12 school located on the university’s campus.
Kevin Joyce and his wife, Kristi, outside their Ave Maria home. (Photo by Brian Tietz.)
Kevin Joyce is one of those people who moved his family to Ave Maria because of the university. The Joyce family moved to Ave Maria from Chicago in 2010, after Joyce was offered a job at the university.
Joyce, the former vice president of institutional advancement at the university, said the transition was a little scary. But within a week of moving in, they knew all of their neighbors, and it was quickly apparent everyone was looking out for one another.
“It’s a similar upbringing in the sense of when I was growing up. We had these blocks in Chicago where there were 50 kids under the age of 16 in the block,” he says. “Because so many families came to Ave Maria from different places … the families in Ave have taken on that characteristic of your neighbors are your family members.”
Joyce, a father of 10 children and the regional director for the Catholic Extension Society, said that while the community has grown over the years, that growth—and its future—is linked to the university.
“As goes the town goes the university, and as goes the university goes the town,” Joyce says. “What that balance is is always going to be changing and moving.”
The university has grown significantly since Towey took over in 2011. Last fall, there were 1,061 undergraduates enrolled in the university, up from 627 when Towey took over. And with more students come more noise and more traffic. Access to university facilities once open to residents is now limited, because the university needs the space and more exclusive use.
As the student population has grown, parts have the community have begun to feel a bit more like a college town, with the same tensions between college kids and older residents as you find anywhere. Over the years there have been reports of vandalism—on two occasions students reportedly stole the letters from a university sign—noise complaints and concerns about intoxicated students in the town center.
While the university’s growth occasionally has residents bristling, the growth in the community is a boon to the university. Barron Collier Co. made Monaghan a partner in their plan to develop the community surrounding the university. Monaghan, in turn, pledged his share of the profits back to the university.
As empty lots are sold and developed, the university sees a financial boost.
“Tom’s dream is being realized that all these empty lots, once sold, will endow the school,” Towey says. “We’re going to get millions this year. That wasn’t taking place in 2011.”
Blake Gable doesn’t quite remember how he felt when the first building went up or when the first people moved into town.
It’s hard, he says, when you’re involved in a project of this magnitude. For every milestone you hit, there’s always another one right behind you.
“There was always something next that needed to be done,” he says. “There wasn’t any time to sit back and celebrate.”
But there was a moment in those early years, Gable says, when it all sort of clicked.
It was in the spring of 2008, and Gable was in Ave Maria for meetings. He had half an hour to kill in between, and pulled off to the side of the road for a few minutes. School had just gotten out, and Gable said four minivans pulled into their driveways. Twenty kids poured out of the vehicles, and started playing in the street.
That was when Gable says he realized what they were trying to do was working.
“We wanted to provide a great community, that was highly amenitized and great for families,” says Gable.
That continues to be the goal. More and more homes are coming online each day, and more and more families are moving in. They’re attracted by the kid-friendly community, the good schools and the amenities.
“The really nice thing about Ave Maria is there are these kids all over the place,” says resident Patricia Sette. “There is a sense of community.”
And while some of the community’s first residents worry the community is moving away from being centered around its faith, new residents continue to point to those values as a reason why they wanted to move to Ave Maria.
Lacey Fairchild and her family always went out to Ave Maria for Mass at Christmas. They brought visitors to see the town, and Fairchild says they “thought it was a special place.” This summer, they decided to make it their home.
The Fairchilds moved to Ave Maria in June. The family moved into a house built in 2014, and Fairchild says they can see the church from their yard. While Donahue Academy was one of the main draws for the family, Fairchild says, so, too, was the town’s Catholic roots.
“Having a town center around faith is surreal,” she says. “It’s very heartwarming. It’s very inspiring.”