Tycoon on a mission in a town with extra God

The billionaire behind Domino's Pizza wants his slice of eternity by building a Catholic town in Florida. Governor Jeb Bush is happy, but many others are up in arms. David Usborne reports
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It is not visible yet, but travel for 90 miles in a north-westerly direction from Miami and in about a year's time you should spy a soft glow lighting the night sky. In your wonder, you will ask: whence this bright vision in the heavens in a place where, according to all the maps, only vegetable fields lie?

In the morning, the Florida sun will rise and your bewilderment will turn to astonishment. Before you, as if grafted to the fertile soil by God himself, will be a town as neat and clean as any you have seen. In its midst will rise a crucifix - at 65ft tall the largest of its kind in all the United States - and the soaring gables of a giant oratory. Squint and you may see nuns tending to the immaculate flower borders.

Welcome to Ave Maria, a city that has not yet been born but which is well on the way. Ground for roads and other infrastructure was broken last month and, if all goes to plan, the first of its 11,000 brand new homes will be ready for residents late next year. So too, at the city's heart, will be a new university, which hopes to become home to 5,000 fresh-faced - and hopefully devout - undergraduates.

The name and the crucifix will have given away that there will be something special about the place. It is being built, on the edge of the Everglades National Park, by a gentleman called Tom Monaghan. Two things are worth knowing about him: he made a fortune building the Domino's Pizza chain and, since reading CS Lewis in 1989, he is a strict Roman Catholic on a mission to evangelise his faith.

Monaghan is merely following a long tradition of Americans made wealthy through business success who in later life turn their focus on philanthropy. Think anyone from Carnegie to Gates. He has been giving to Catholic causes for two decades. And after selling his controlling interest in Domino's in 1999 for a reported $1bn (£570m), he has recently been in a position to step up these charitable activities.

But because of his biblical agenda, he has attracted a good deal more controversy than most of his dollar-rich peers. His money has flowed into Catholic organisations, in particular those that oppose birth control and are fighting to have laws overturned that guarantee the right to abortion. His generosity has flowed to the point where, in the early 1990s, pro-abortion women's groups tried, though largely failed, to orchestrate a boycott of Domino's.

The colourful history of Monaghan's conversion from purveyor of double-crusted pies to purveyor of the Gospel has also helped stir an unusual degree of fascination with his godly doings (and, by the way, with the designs of the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright). Some see something fanatical and perhaps dangerous in a man who went from living the life of a dollar-spoiled tycoon - owning yachts, mansions, a Bugatti and even a big-leagues baseball team - to avid lieutenant of the Vatican.

Never, however, has he caused quite so much consternation than today with his plans for Ave Maria. Whether justified or not, word leaked out last week that Monaghan was building a town where only Catholics would be welcome, and where the "polluting" influences of the carnal world would be censored. Media reports said he planned to control all commerce in the town, keeping anything X-rated off the television cable channels, banning smut from the newspaper stands and even forbidding its chemist shops from selling birth control goods. Residents of Ave Maria, it seemed, could expect the neatness of fictional Wisteria Lane without any of the saucy shenanigans. (No shirtless gardening lads here.) The housewives in this town would never need to feel desperate; God would be there to guide them and save them.

If this is the impression that is out there then the man they call the "Pizza Pope" may only have himself to blame. Though sparing in his public pronouncements, when he has spoken he has done little to reassure his critics. Talking to Newsweek about Ave Maria, he said: "I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don't want to be on the sidelines." He has also described his decision to bankroll the new town with $250m of his own money as carrying out, "God's will". Then there was a speech delivered to students last year by Nicholas Healey, the man chosen by Monaghan to be president of Ave Maria University, which will be the first Catholic University to be built in the US for 40 years. He talked of the dangers of fundamentalist Islam, of the "catastrophic cultural collapse" of the Christian West, especially in Europe, and his quest that his future students will leave their place of learning understanding that they have a duty to "help rebuild the City of God".

Healey expanded on the theme of the degeneration of the West's moral fabric. "If you consider the more telling signs, such as its plummetting birth rate, Europe does not even seem to believe in a future ... children are a sign of hope and the fruit of obedience to God's command to be fruitful and multiply."

Monaghan had at first hoped to build the university and town on Domino's Farms, the sprawling campus he created as the one-time headquarters of his pizza giant in countryside outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, all of its low-slung buildings strictly fitting the Lloyd Wright style. (It was a place also bristling with security personnel ready to eject reporters who dared turn up in the hope of learning more about one of America's largest but most secretive corporations.) The local authorities denied him planning permission, however, so he turned his eyes south to Florida.

The Sunshine State had no such qualms. This is the state that allowed Walt Disney to create his own universe after the Second World War on land that has become Disney World and didn't blink when the Disney corporation later built a residential town of its own, just south of the park, called Celebration. It was mocked for its squeaky-clean thoroughfares and picket-fence ethos, but buyers streamed in. Disney sold its control in Celebration five years ago.

So, when Monaghan bought the 5,000 acres that will shortly become Ave Maria, among those applauding him was the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. He attended a ground-breaking ceremony last month and praised the vision of Ave Maria as a place "where faith and freedom will merge".

Shortly to turn 69, Monaghan was born in Ann Arbor in 1947 and raised by his single mother and also by nuns at a convent school. The nuns sowed the first seeds of his faith. After serving in the US Marines and receiving an honorable discharge in 1959, he returned to study at the University of Michigan. But it was while studying that he and his brother bought a hole-in-the-wall pizza shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, called DomiNick's Pizza. The brother was later to turn over his share in the company in return for a Volkswagen Beetle, leaving Tom to build the business into an empire that eventually boasted more than 6,000 outlets around the world.

Over the years, Monaghan, who is married with four children, began acquiring all the trappings of an American business buccaneer. There was the yacht, the vintage Bugatti Royale, one of only six in the world, which he acquired for $8m, the campus at Domino's Farms (his own office had a floor of leather tiles) and, perhaps his greatest trophy of all, the Detroit Tigers baseball team, bought in 1983.

Even in those days, he was displaying signs of his religious calling, however. With his anti-abortion convictions strenghtening, he took to naming his birth date nine months earlier than his actual birthday. As early as in 1983, he created the Mater Christi Foundation - late to become the Ave Maria Foundation - to begin funneling his wealth to Christian causes, including elementary schools in Nicaragua. In 1987, he traveled to Rome where he received the personal blessing of Pope John Paul II and afterwards formed Legatus, a club of American corporate leaders similarly interested in promoting Catholic teaching.

But it was when a friend handed him a copy of Mere Christianity in 1989 that Monaghan's priorities began to change in earnest. The book, by CS Lewis, explores the notion that the greatest sin of man is pride. Monaghan, recognising that he was about as proud as any man could be, took a break from Domino's to explore dedicating himself more seriously to the faith. He did return to the company two years later when its fortunes began to flounder, but from then on defending the tenets of Catholicism became his greatest endeavour, which has now brought him to his life-defining project, Ave Maria.

Since last month's ground-breaking, however, the plans for Ave Maria have been swamped by questioning media articles and by threats of lawsuits from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. They accuse him of trying to build a community where his own Christian predilections will clash openly with the constitutional separation of church and state in America. Increasingly, he is being portrayed less as a benign philanthropist and more as a man verging on the zany.

"If he wants to build a town and encourage like-minded people to come and live there, that's fine," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, who predicted the lawsuits could be multiple. "We get into problems where he tries to exercise governmental authority."

Such has been the brouhaha that Florida's attorney general has been forced to come to his aid. "The community has the right to provide a wholesome environment," said Charlie Crist. "If someone disagrees, they have the right to go to court and present facts before a judge."

Yesterday, Monaghan and his partners on the project were deploying themselves on the morning television shows, claiming they had been victims of a misunderstanding. True, Monaghan said, he would exercise authority over the university campus to keep out pornography and condoms. But the town, he said, would be like anywhere else in the US - open to whatever flows in. "There's a lot of misconceptions about this. I don't really have a vision for the town. I have a vision for the university," Monaghan said on ABC-TV's Good Morning America.

A slightly more nuanced message was rehearsed by Paul Marinelli, who is chief executive of Barron Collier, the company that is actually building the town. There would indeed be no topless bars or adult book shops within its borders. He admitted that he hoped that there would be no contraceptives sold in its shops either, but that there would be no ordinances specifically banning them. "We're not trying to create a city with walls around it that isolates from the world," he said. And he added: "It is not going to be a Catholic town. We anticipate there will be synagogues as well as Baptist churches. We do not discriminate against anyone."

It will be another year or more before Ave Maria is declared open and only then will these belated assurances be tested. And they almost certainly will. One day a kid in the university will declare himself to be gay or a condom packet will appear in one of its petrol stations. And Monaghan will choke on his pizza.