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Ave Maria promotes Catholic faith

Thagard, Andrew | Thursday, February 5, 2004

When Eileen Matthes of Woodstock, Ill. began her college search the summer before her senior year of high school, she was quickly drawn toward a Catholic liberal arts institution named after Mary and committed to instilling values in its students.

“When I heard the name, I knew I was supposed to go there,” she said.

Matthes wasn’t referring to Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s, both named after Jesus’ mother, but Ave Maria University – the nation’s first Catholic university to be established in the last 40 years and one devoted to meshing first-rate academics with a commitment to follow the Church’s teachings.

Thinking big

The Florida university opened its doors last fall with a $200 million donation from billionaire Tom Monaghan, Domino’s Pizza founder. Its 100-plus students, recruited from over 30 states, currently live and study in a converted assisted living facility in southwest Florida while construction continues on the university’s permanent campus outside of Naples.

When the first phase of construction is complete in 2006, Ave Maria will boast state-of-the-art academic facilities, a library and residence halls for 1,000 students. Development is simultaneously underway on land adjacent to the campus, where a town bearing the university’s name and partially owned by the institution will house 1,500 residents starting that same year. The town of Ave Maria will have the feel of an old European city, complete with a grand central church and plaza and adjoining streets lined with shops, restaurants and cafes.

“This is the first time someone has planned a new town around a college campus,” said Nicholas Healy, a Notre Dame alumnus and president of Ave Maria University.

In the coming years, officials envision Ave Maria growing into a nationally renowned university with an undergraduate population of 5,000 and an NCAA Division I-A football team like that of its northerly neighbor.

Emphasizing faith

They also remain committed to establishing a university with a reputation for upholding the Catholic faith and remaining loyal to the Church’s teachings – something critics say today’s leading Catholic universities have lost sight of in their efforts to achieve higher status within the academic community.

A study published in the “Catholic World Report,” conducted by the Cardinal Newman Society, for example, surveyed students at 38 Catholic colleges between 1997 and 2001 and concluded that students who graduate from such schools are more inclined to develop pro-choice views and support legalizing gay marriages and less likely to attend Mass then before they started school.

Ave Maria University hopes to combat such statistics.

“Our intent is to be a great university that is capable, in time, of responding to the culture we’re in,” Healy said. “As Catholics, we need to respond to that from an intellectual level.”

Central to Ave Maria’s identity is its adherence to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 that requires Catholic institutions of higher learning to remain true to their religious identity and committed to the Church’s teachings. The university, for example, requires new theology faculty members to take an oath of fidelity to the Church’s magisterium in the presence of a bishop and students are encouraged to take advantage of adoration, rosary recitations and daily Masses available on campus.

Challenging students

University officials, however, are quick to emphasize that their goal is to produce students who also challenge their faith, and this notion is echoed within Ave Maria’s student body.

“They raise a bunch of committed adults and not clones,” said Stephanie Galuszka, a sophomore at the university. “They teach you to be someone who can defend the Catholic faith. It’s harder, but it’s a really cool way of doing things.”

Matthes, in particular, said she appreciates the commitment of the faculty to nurturing their own faith, adding that it’s not unusual to find professors joining in on daily Mass or adoration.

“I wanted a college where the professors were pursuing the Catholic faith,” she said. “You see them doing that, and you know that’s the source of the drive and intensity of their passion for teaching.”

Commitment to the Catholic faith is part of the reason why students are attracted to Ave Maria, and embracing new concepts that are perceived to run counter to that of established institutions is often popular among young people, said Kathleen Cummings, associate director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for American Catholicism.

“[Ave Maria University] is distinctive in that it’s fulfilling a need. I think there are a lot of young American Catholics who want to go somewhere where [Catholicism] isn’t ambiguous,” she said. “I think attending Ave Maria University is a counter cultural decision and that has great appeal among young Catholics today.”

Applicants are also attracted to Ave Maria in part because of its low tuition compared to other private schools ($15,150 annually for tuition, room and board – half the cost of Notre Dame) and its location, Healy said.

“I don’t know what your temperature is up there, but it’s 70 degrees here, and the sky is clear,” he said. “[Southwest Florida] is a very attractive area, and I think there is a great interest in an institution that is starting out unabashedly Catholic. A lot of students like being pioneers.”

Feeling the cold shoulder

Ave Maria’s reputation for being “revolutionary” in its approach toward Catholicism and the media’s emphasis on this, however, hasn’t exactly endeared it to the nation’s established Catholic colleges and universities.

“I haven’t been rejected, but I haven’t been welcomed, either,” Healy said of his experience with officials at other institutions. “We may be looked upon with [annoyance] because we’re so openly Catholic.”

Notre Dame spokesman Matt Storin said the University does not comment on other colleges or universities but affirmed Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.

“I think anyone who would visit our campus would have no doubt that this is a committed Catholic university,” he said.

Michael James, associate executive director of the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that he and his colleagues are delighted at the presence of a new institution like Ave Maria University but upset with the tendency of some to hail it as a ‘one size fits all’ solution to American Catholic higher education.

“Generally, the inquires we’ve received from media sources begin with the presumption that this project is being pushed as counter-cultural. It’s seen as a challenge to Catholic higher education,” James said. “I think that it’s not a completely wrong presentation; however, as an association, we don’t find that Ave Maria University is inconsistent with most of our Catholic institutions that are founded on service.”

He likewise dismissed the Cardinal Newman Society study that called into question the effectiveness of Catholic institutions of higher learning, emphasizing that there isn’t one single ideal toward which American Catholic colleges and universities are striving.

“There isn’t one narrowly defined template to what is a successful Catholic college or university,” he said.

That may be true. Ave Maria University, however, with its emphasis on faith combined with a strong sense of community in a temperate climate, seems successful in attracting new students. The university announced a 30 percent increase in enrollment for the spring semester, and students like Matthes and Galuszka couldn’t be happier with their experience so far.

“It’s got the right mix,” Galuszka said.