Ave Maria

Ave Maria is a collaboration between photographer Rylan Steele and Nora Wendl, as poet. The poems in Ave Maria intentionally take on the perspective of the founder of Ave Maria Township, Tom Monaghan, who was inspired to produce this town from scratch after reading a series of books, from the King James Bible to C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, that impressed upon him the notion that building an intentional community would "save" him. The poems are constructed of fragments of these persuasive texts, fragments of other texts on utopia, and fragments of statements made by Monaghan in the media, in which he tried to explain his project by way of his own life. Like any human project, Ave Maria, Florida is futile; the poems and photographs work together in an attempt to meditate upon this without judgement.  

The project was a finalist for the 2015 Lange-Taylor Prize in Image Word Collaboration from Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.

Ave Maria (Savannah: A-B Editions, 2016)

At the age of 23, Tom Monaghan purchased a failing pizzeria in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Following the death of his father, Tom Monaghan spent half his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he bought DomiNick’s to pay for his architectural studies at the University of Michigan. To do this, he and his brother—whom he later bought out of the business with a Volkswagen Beetle—took out a $900 loan. By the mid-1980s, through the innovation of a thermally superior delivery box and the creation of Domino’s Farms, he had built Domino’s into a thriving corporation. By the early ‘90s, he had amassed a sizeable fortune and was an American entrepreneurial legend. The once penniless orphan who gave up his dream of being an architect to pursue business purchased a private plane, amassed a collection of rare cars, and became the world’s leading collector of Frank Lloyd Wright memorabilia.

After reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, in particular his warnings against pride, “the essential vice,” Monaghan divested himself of many possessions. He sold the Detroit Tigers to business rival Mike Ilitch, owner of Little Caesars, and abandoned his dream home midconstruction in order to focus on a new goal: “to get as many people into heaven as possible.” He has since given large financial gifts to numerous educational and charitable Catholic organizations. In 1998, he sold his controlling stake in Domino’s Pizza to Bain Capital for a billion dollars. That same year, Monaghan founded Ave Maria College in two former elementary school buildings near the campus of Eastern Michigan University. Monaghan sought to build a full college campus for 1,500 students on his 280-acre farm, including a 25-story crucifix (with a 40-foot Christ) at the junction of two highways, but was denied zoning approval by the Ann Arbor Township.

In 2003, Barron Collier Companies, one of Florida’s largest real estate developers, offered Monaghan nearly 1,000 acres—at no cost—to build his university in a rural area of southwest Florida. In return, they would develop the neighboring land for residential and commercial use. Monaghan invested millions into the speculative town, planning to recycle the profits from its development into a reincarnation of the college that he would call Ave Maria University. It would take a personal effort by then Florida Governor Jeb Bush to put in place the legislation that would allow Monaghan and his investors to develop Ave Maria.

The town continues to grow slowly, but will most likely never meet its founders’ expectations. By early 2015, only 720 of the 11,000 homes planned for Ave Maria have been built—a mere 15 percent. And of those built, not all are occupied—in 2014, 138 households had moved in. 85 percent of the 100,000 square feet of retail space that encircles the giant, stone-faced 1,000-seat Ave Maria Oratory, partially designed by Monaghan, has been leased.

Now 79 years old, Tom Monaghan divides his time between his home in Michigan and a house in Naples, thirty miles west of Ave Maria.

Attributions: The italicized lines in the poems are quotes derived from the following disparate external sources. The poems do not specify which source the italicized lines are drawn from, therefore suggesting a possible intercourse of dialogue and exchangeability between the following: John Szarkowski, “Mirrors and Windows,” in American Photography Since 1960 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: The Viking Press, 1922), Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1976), C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), and the King James Bible. Direct quotes from Tom Monaghan, also italicized, were sourced from Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other news sources.