Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ave Maria

If you happen to be in southwest Florida, in the middle of nowhere and conceive a need to buy groceries, you might be in luck if you are on Oil Well Road just west of Highway 29.Oil Well Road is also known, in the Florida manner of giving streets multiple identities, as Corts 858, which might possibly translate into County Route 858 for all I know. Anyway this road runs through agricultural land that is not what one considers to be prime retail space:
Until a glance to the north of the road reveals all:Welcome to Ave Maria, founded in 2007. This is a city in the making and though it apparently offers a Del Webb golf course, still has a ways to go. Side streets apparently are built on an as-needed basis:The cause for the commotion in the middle of nowhere is this large structure, not visible from Oil Well Road but that rises up like an aircraft hangar over the development that surrounds it:The domed building is the Oratory, a cathedral rising out of the Everglades devoted to the worship of Our Lady of... the Everglades, I guess? And while worshipers can get their salad dressing easily enough now, thanks to Publix, dinosaur juice is still five miles away at the intersection of Highway 29, because this place has yet to schedule an opening day as far as I can tell:Ave maria is a practical sort of place and not everyone is inclined in an attitude of prayer:
It takes back breaking labor to turn mushy fields into something more suitable for human habitation. The end product is supposed to look like this:
Ave Maria is a work in progress, and it is the vision of one man who made a fortune while making pizza. Young Tom Monaghan spent six years in a Catholic orphanage during World War Two when his widowed mother couldn't cope with raising two kids. The story goes he bought a pizza parlor in Ypsilanti Michigan on a wing and a prayer and turned DomiNick's into Domino's and sold the business in 1998 for a billion bucks and set about devoting his fortune to the saving of souls. Which doesn't explain why south west Florida prairie became his target: Ave Maria was originally a University in Michigan and it was by all accounts doing quite well. Monaghan hired strong faculty from a nearby catholic Law School that was having an amateur dramatics hour among the faculty (a falling out over a commencement speaker who was in favor of abortion rights I believe), and attracted bright students and apparently was in the process of building up a first rank Catholic Law School out of the box, as odd as that sounds. Then he got a burr up his butt and wanted to build an entire new city devoted to Catholicism and he figured Florida was the place to go. As one does...Naturally a settled community in Michigan was loathe to up sticks and trek to the Everglades to pioneer a new town and a new University and the project wobbled quite badly. But that's the trouble when you rely on an opinionated dictator with a lot of money; what he wants goes. So here we are with a fledgling university, a fledgling town and a giant cathedral in the middle of nowhere. Entirely irresistible as a destination for a ride from Key West. If there was any doubt this tag spells out the program at Ave Maria. The religious obsession with abortion rights is expressed by this tag that was challenged in court as an unconstitutional mixture of church and state. Florida's argument was that the funds raised by the Choose Life tag go to adoption programs. Opponents argued the phrase is a religious wording unsuitable for a license plate. The state argued that Choose Life actually spells Choose Adoption, thus giving government critics even more ammunition to explain how government bureaucrats can't spell. Curiously no such argument was made, principally I suspect because abortion opponents are also government opponents and in this case government illiteracy worked in their favor. Ave Maria's urban planning fits into the typical late 20th century Florida style of boom growth. The homes sit on lots with all appurtenances, pools garages, neatly trimmed lawns and inappropriate tile roofs (tiles make excellent missiles in high winds). A quick perusal of Realtor listings shows these homes are not terribly expensive by South Florida standards, under a quarter of a million each, though one must remember we are about 40 miles from the beach and if one needs to work it's quite a commute to any place with a job. When Ave Maria was conceived Monaghan's plan was to have the whole place operate by strictly Catholic standards, and pornography and condoms were to be banned. Until it was discovered this proposal was deemed unconstitutional. I should have stopped by the pharmacy and asked for a packet of french letters, but it didn't seem important.The cluster of homes radiates from the central point of the place which is the Oratory which rises up out of La Piazza, a supposedly Floridian representation of an Italian square, which if you have never been to Italy might sound reasonable but the execution of this piazza seems a little flawed to me. This is the rear of the Oratory:
It's tempting to make comparisons to the Stepford wives when you see ads like this fronting the construction zones, and aside from the Central Americans pulling weeds I did only see white people in the Oratory, but this is just another take on a suburban idyll in South Florida, and there are many many variations on the theme, and as we shall see, living miles from anywhere among a select group of believers does have it's advantages:
There is much more construction to come and the end result may end up looking more organic than the bits and pieces that look like a poorly designed Lego. The thing that struck me though, was that Ave Maria appears to be an opportunity missed to create a town from scratch with a commitment to sustainability. You'd think that xeriscaping, solar and wind energy and energy efficiency would be the watchwords but of such concepts I saw no signs. The feeling of this place was totally 1950s, when humans built and Nature yielded.
I cannot begin to imagine how much water time and money is wasted keeping these luscious lawns looking civilized:
Which leads one to ponder what are they teaching at the University? Environmental Law?
Consider it was a one hundred degree day outside and the Oratory was cool and comfortable inside. How do I know? Because I went to Mass that's how. Notice the absence of solar anything on the roofs. And this is the first time I have seen the Vatican City flag flying as a matter of course anywhere in Florida. The crossed keys represent the keys to the kingdom of heaven given to St Peter who acted as custodian and passed them on down to the Popes elected in his wake. Which is how Catholics know their God is the real one. "Though art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church..."Apparently Monaghan also paid to build a cathedral in Managua after the great Nicaraguan earthquake of distant memory, in 1972, knocked the old one down. I don't suppose it looked much like this extraordinary piece of architecture, striking yet instantly recognizable for what it is, a church:Standing off to one side and wondering what would have happened in the world if Bill Gates had been raised in a Catholic orphanage and had decided to spend his considerably larger fortune promoting this kind of stuff, instead of health care and vaccinations in the Third World, I noticed a steady trickle of back-packed youngsters trudging around the church:
I walked a while and observed the piazza a bit. There is a café and a book shop and cable television and all the usual stuff. Ave Maria was not designed as far as I can tell as an exclusive community for wealthy people. This is simply a town for people who happen to be Catholics and like the company of similarly minded people. I suppose you could be a Jew or a Protestant or whatever and buy a reasonably priced home in a very secure, clean community, but I think most non Catholics would get tired of the theme. Who knows, if the rest of Florida goes further down the toilet maybe there will be lots of people looking for serenity and quiet in a town named for the Virgin Mother of God, no matter what their beliefs. There are business opportunities aplenty.
I realized after a while that this urban layout seemed lacking to me. The Oratory is in the wrong place. Instead of surrounding the church, these buildings should form two sides of a square with the church at one end and the university at the other. If this weren't a Catholic town I'd guess the Fung Shui is mixed up. The problem as I see it, and I'm no architect, is that the desire to put the church at the center of a radiating wheel of development is that the church becomes an obstruction in the middle of the piazza.
In no Italian town that I have seen has the church or cathedral ever been placed at the hub of the city. Traditionally the church occupies one side of the town square, perhaps dominates it, but it's place is overlooking the action, not being the center of it all. I left behind my considerations on urban planning and went inside. This statue is the Maria that everyone here is Ave-ing:Perhaps they need more benefactors but I found the interior of the Oratory to be unusually stark for a Catholic Church. Such restraint is unusual, as there are normally statues everywhere, paintings, representations of Biblical scenes and all manner of physical beauty, blood and open hearts in defiance of the rather more austere norms set by Protestants, Muslims and Hebrews. Catholicism is the gaudy religion, but you wouldn't know it here, except for the rather impressive roof supports:It was close to noon and I realized I was going to be attending Mass. I dunked my finger in the Holy Water, genuflected with years of practice to fall back on and received a beaming smile from the babe at the desk off to one side. How extraordinary I thought to myself, I can probably pull this off. "Give me the child till seven and I will show you the man," St Francis Xavier intoned rather menacingly. He was right apparently because I fit in just fine. Me and my ever-present camera. The Mass is a standardized set of prayers in an immutable format that priests all over the world say the same way with the same mannerisms at the same point in the ritual. I have heard mass in four continents in many languages because since the late 1960s the Vatican has required that the Mass be said in local languages and no longer in Latin. I might have expected this place to follow the rebellious path but Ave Maria is no rebel hold out. There was nothing exceptional about the experience and I recalled how dull I find the vernacular mass to be. All the mystery of transubstantiation has been reduced to a passion similar to someone reading from the phone book. I checked out my neighbors in traditional Catholic fashion. In the old days when the Mass took 90 or more minutes to complete in a community where men and women weren't allowed to mingle in public, going to Mass was a way to size up the talent. My interest in my settled middle age was not the young women on their knees flashing their ankles but these guys who looked like they would be suitable bad guy characters in one of those nonsensical religious thrillers that have been fashionable lately. I think their intensity was religious fervor but the identical suits and severe demeanor gave them an unyielding air, I never understood the popularity of thrillers about the Catholic Church of all things. But these arcane formulae capture some people's imagination.I wandered off during Communion when people are shuffling around getting in line down the middle of the church. In the lobby I saw this, which was a nice reminder to me that living here must be serene if you can get around the dogma. No need to worry about thieves.
And in my view, returning to urban planning, the view from the steps should have encompassed the buildings on either side with perhaps a reception area for the University at the opposite end of the piazza. Instead, because the Oratory is plumb in the middle, the view is truncated and awkward.The Church has always been a superb fundraiser:
I should have checked to see if the bicycles were locked, though I doubt it, because I can't imagine who would steal them. You'd need to be a Tour de France athlete to cycle 40 miles to Naples on a stolen bicycle in this heat. Much better to use an engine:
Especially if you have a cute and slightly inscrutable tag on your magnificent machine. I wondered if he led club rides, or got lost frequently. You may have heard the joke about why it took Moses 40 years to find his way out of the Sinai, a desert the size of Connecticut? Because he was a man and couldn't bring himself to ask directions.
Back on the road I was refreshed by my pause in the church and now it was time to ride the highways to lunch in Clewiston. The first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 2 Verse 14 and following: The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. There's something to bear in mind before putting a deposit on a house at Ave Maria.