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The Roman Catholic World

A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”  G.K. Chesterton–  The Everlasting Man, 1925

August 3, 2009

The following article appeared as the feature story on the front page of The Wanderer, August 6, 2009 issue, which was available online on  July 31, 2009.


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Part 1

Marielena Montesino de Stuart

Ave Maria is my second “ prom­ised land.” When my family and I freed ourselves from the grip of the Communists in Cuba and arrived in the promised land of the United States, we left behind years of per­secution, political imprisonment, executions, and hunger. But most of all we left behind the inhuman practice of silencing dissent— si­lencing our ability to speak the truth of the injustices we suffered. Free speech, and the ability to express dissent is what separates civilized societies from uncivilized ones. It is what my father was im­prisoned for — and many mem­bers of my family gave up their lives for, as devout Roman Catho­lics. So, it is in this spirit of free­dom, truth, and loyalty to the Church, that I tell the following story.

The Wanderer – August 6, 2009 Issue. Front page featured article AVE MARIA: THE PROMISE, THE REALITY by Marielena Montesino de Stuart

Human projects rise and fall based on the ideas they present — but if these ideas are not support­ed by strong moral conditions, no amount of money or promises will allow them to flourish.

It is the absence of these moral conditions that has led so many devout, conservative, faithful Cath­olics, who once supported Tom Monaghan’s idea of Ave Maria, to now express their strong objections about Ave Maria University’s ad­ministration, under the leadership of its founder.

This outpouring of dissent, again — not from liberals, but from so many conservative faith­ful Catholics, through various Catholic media, is truly notewor­thy. This stands in stark contrast to those inside Ave Maria, who have remained alarmingly silent. Is this silence borne out of fear?

When the university and the town of Ave Maria officially opened in the summer of 2007, the expectation, from the world, was that Tom Monaghan’s promise of an “ orthodox” Catholic university — and the town with the Catholic identity built in part to support it, would be the answer to the dream of thousands of faithful Catholics. Those who longed for a place to gather, worship, and raise their families — in an environment both possible under our Constitution, and under God’s natural laws.

Anyone who visited Ave Maria in the spring of 2007 could have easily compared it to the surface of another planet. The remoteness, and the absence of topographical prominence, other than the church and a few buildings, made it seem almost surreal. A place so barren could only be supported through the lure of big promises. How else would anyone be attracted to the middle of a swamp, teeming with alligators, panthers, bears, pythons, wild boar, and a plethora of insects almost the size of helicopters.

The promise of a self-sufficient thriving community, as promoted by Tom Monaghan in partnership with the developer, Barron Collier, seemed extraordinary. In a world where the hopes for our children’s future seem more and more bleak, the thought of a promised self-suf­ficient community with a Catholic identity, to help support an “ortho­dox” Catholic university, was much too precious to turn down.  


Ave Maria

Within the first year, the disap­pointments and the exodus began. The moral conditions needed to support a project of the magnitude of Ave Maria were not there — not because there weren’t participants and residents supporting the moral conditions needed — but because many of the key players had gone in another direction.

The emphasis became — “Is Ave Maria a Catholic Town? Absolute­ly not”; “Every Family, Every Life­style, Every Dream” — is what the developer, in partnership with Mon­aghan, advertised on their web site.

“Every lifestyle”?

The faithful Catholics who came here to support Tom Monaghan’s Catholic dream did so to get away from “every life­style.” Why would they come to a town, in a remote location of the Everglades — which until six weeks ago did not even offer a place to buy the most basic necessities, to experience “ every lifestyle.” The marketing of this town has been an ongoing controversy — but that’s another story. The fact remains, that now faithful Catholics are afraid to come — and “all lifestylers” would rather display their style elsewhere. So, the uniqueness of the town (a Catholic identity) being publicly denied — shattered the dreams of many who came, or were planning to come.

Some of the faithful Catholic fam­ilies that purchased homes in Ave Maria, with great joy, sacrifice, and enthusiasm, have subsequently sold them at a great loss. Some seem to be “ walking away” from their property. Others came, hoping to buy — then saw the disconnect be­tween the promise and the reality, then withdrew their offers on the purchase of homes. The remarks from those who have left or are try­ing to leave include, “it wasn’t what we thought it would be” to “ we want to put it behind us” or “ we cannot discuss it.” The Naples Dai­ly News reporter could hardly ever obtain an attributable statement about problems concerning the uni­versity and the town from a resident in nearly a year and a half, since the town opened.

Why, one would ask, would a town with a promised Catholic iden­tity and a promised “ orthodox” Catholic university elicit such part­ing remarks? Why would people be afraid to say why they left, or are trying to leave, to the Naples Daily News, or to anyone, for that matter? What are the people who have left, or are trying to leave, concerned about? Are they afraid of retaliation? Some may be leaving for strictly personal reasons — but those that are, or have been connected with the university, will not speak.  

Dare To Dissent

Fr. Joseph Fessio’s second firing last month is evidence of retaliation. In his written statement following his firing he explains the reasons for his dismissal:

“ This morning ( Monday, July 20), Dr. Jack Sites, Academic Vice President of Ave Maria University, flew from Houston, where he was attending a meeting of the South­ern Association of Colleges and Schools, to San Francisco, to in­form me personally that I was be­ing dismissed from Ave Maria Uni­versity. . . . He said that the reason for my dismissal stemmed from a conversation I had in November of 2008 with Jack Donahue, then chairman of the board of AMU. At that time I felt it an obligation to speak to the board chairman be­fore the upcoming board meeting, to make sure he was aware of the urgency of the university’s finan­cial situation. After I had in­formed him, using projections based on publicly available doc­uments and statements, he asked me what I thought was the solu­tion. I told him that there were policies being followed that were at the root of the problem, that the present administration was irre­vocably wedded to those policies, and that without a change of ad­ministration the university was at great risk.”

So, Fr. Fessio expressed his con­cerns to a member of the Board of Trustees — regarding information of vital importance to institution­al stability and fiduciary respon­sibility. The Ave Maria Universi­ty administration reacted through retaliation, by firing him. This cli­mate is not conducive to student protest, particularly because most of the students are in some form of scholarship or tuition assis­tance. It is not clear if Ave Maria University students even publish an independent student newspa­per where dissenting opinions can be freely expressed. There has not been consistency in the under­standing and reaction from the stu­dents, regarding the events that are taking place.

These circumstances are remi­niscent of Communist or totalitar­ian regimes — where people’s dis­sent ends in retaliation, and where information is suppressed. Ave Maria is not just another urban de­velopment. It was an ambitious project with colossal plans and wonderful Catholic promises. Why would a place like this send people into silence?

The only known open support for Monaghan inside the town of Ave Maria has come from a hand­ful of individuals. The question is: How many of these individu­als — and to what extent — are beholden to Monaghan and his enterprise? And do they really get the whole picture? What the pub­lic has not seen is the other side — those residents, who feel disap­pointed, afraid and isolated, with no way out.  

The Surprise

One underlying factor not known to many about Ave Maria, is the ownership and control that the university has over the town. The media have chronicled that many of the professors and staff that purchased homes in Ave Mar­ia, did so by accepting incentive second mortgages of up to $ 150,000 issued by the universi­ty — which would have to be re­turned to the university within 90 days, pursuant to the terms con­tained in the contract, excerpted below:

Jury Trial Waiver.   The Borrow­er hereby waives any right to a trial by jury in any action, pro­ceeding, claim, or counterclaim, whether in contract or tort, at law or in equity, arising out of or in any way related to this Security Instrument or the Note. Definition of Maturity Date. The Maturity Date of this Note shall be the first to occur of the following events; when the Property is sold or trans­ferred, upon any acceleration of the Note or first mortgage on the Property for default or otherwise, upon obtaining any subordinate mortgage financing on the Prop­erty, within ninety (90) days of the date when a Borrower leaves the full time employment of Ave Mar­ia University, Inc. unless the Bor­rower is totally and permanently disabled according to the Ave Maria University disability poli­cy, not later than three ( 3) years of any Borrower’s death or retire­ment from the University such pe­riod being determined based upon Borrower’s years of service to Ave Maria University, when the Prop­erty is no longer used by Borrow­er as Borrower’s primary resi­dence.

This financial arrangement makes Ave Maria University the employer, loan officer, and bene­ficiary of the purchase.

In addition, ownership of busi­nesses in the available retail busi­ness space owned by Monaghan in partnership with Barron Colli­er (under the name of Ave Maria Development) includes financial incentives, such as free leased space. These factors, in effect, make Ave Maria largely a compa­ny- owned town. Almost none of the faculty members are tenured, and many members of the staff are “ at will employees.”

Showing moral courage under such a beholden state has proven to be difficult in a financially con­trolled environment like Ave Mar­ia.  

Free Speech: The Open Letter

As the spring of 2009 drew near, I decided that, as a private citizen of Ave Maria, and as a family who is financially independent from the university and the town, and its governing district board, it was time that I addressed in writing some of the issues that were of concern to many, regarding the ad­ministration of Ave Maria Univer­sity. These issues directly affect the residents, as investors in this town built around, and — in a symbiotic relationship — with the university. So, on February 17, 2009 the Naples Daily News pub­lished in their editorial pages my Open Letter to the Ave Maria Uni­versity Board of Trustees.  Here is the complete text of that letter:  

My Open Letter To The University’s Board Of Trustees

As a resident of Ave Maria, and one attracted to move here in part by the advertised presence of an “ orthodox Catholic” university, I wish to present the following com­ments and questions to the Board of Trustees of Ave Maria Univer­sity, for discussion during the Board’s meetings scheduled to take place on February 19 and 20, 2009.

My husband and I moved with our young children to Ave Maria in August 2007, seeking the or­thodox Catholic environment that Mr. Tom Monaghan had promot­ed through the creation of a uni­versity that would follow the Ap­ostolic Constitution of the Ser­vant of God, Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. This is mani­fested through promotional mate­rials and the use of the words Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“ From the Heart of the Church”) and the title of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Let­ter Veritatis Splendor (“ The Splendor of Truth”) in the univer­sity’s logo.

This expression of Ave Maria University’s stated loyalty to the guidelines of Catholic education set forth by Pope John Paul II was further supported by the use of the Oratory’s image surrounding the words Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As par­ents, we were filled with tremen­dous hope that this return to tra­ditional Catholic higher education and obedience to the Magisteri­um, would repair the terrible dam­age caused by the infamous Land O’Lakes Statement of 1967, which disassociated Catholic higher ed­ucation from episcopal guidance.

Upon arriving in Ave Maria, we found that the Catholic orthodoxy that had been advertised, was sud­denly under attack by the same ad­ministration that had promoted it. For example, at this new so- called “ orthodox Catholic” AMU cam­pus in Ave Maria my children and I were not permitted to kneel at the communion rail; paradoxical­ly, kneeling at the communion rail had been routinely permitted — in fact, it was a tradition at the old AMU campus, only a few miles away in the community of The Vineyards, in Naples.

Many persons interested in moving to the new Town of Ave Maria had attended Mass at the old AMU campus in The Vine­yards and witnessed the use of the communion rail — something clearly indicative of a return to a level of reverence and belief ab­sent in so many other places.

The opposite was true at the new AMU campus in Ave Maria, where the student body had to bravely and respectfully argue for use of the communion rail, but AMU’s administration stubbornly refused to comply. When I asked the priest who claimed to be “ Chaplain” where the communion rail was, he responded that it had been removed and placed in an undisclosed location.

What followed were months of an adversarial environment in­volving our local Bishop’s author­ity. This was a shocking experi­ence, considering that this is a Bishop universally regarded as an orthodox Catholic. This situation became worse, as AMU’s institu­tional identity was being ques­tioned.

The Naples Daily News report­ed during the month of February 2008, that the president of AMU had said that although “ Catholic” status has not been conferred upon the university, changes to church laws might not do enough to re­flect the laity’s growing influence after the Second Vatican Council, and that “ it might take a while for canon law to catch up to all that.” This clearly did not lend credence to the AMU administration’s claim to uphold Catholic orthodoxy. To the contrary, Catholic orthodoxy does not engage in power strug­gles with an orthodox Catholic Bishop.

Need I say that nothing, abso­lutely anything could have pre­pared me for the division and de­fiance I witnessed against our Bishop, or for the persecution I suffer as an orthodox Catholic, to this day, inside Ave Maria. What a profound disappointment it has been, to my family, and to others — who are interested in being loyal to the Church, and were attracted to Ave Maria by AMU’s marketing to “orthodox” Catholics.

The months passed in this sus­pended state, and the pressure built on all sides. As the need for Sacra­ments increased, something that could only be provided through obedience to the local Bishop and under his pastoral care, AMU final­ly reached an agreement with the Catholic Church, allowing the Ora­tory to be under the control and guidance of the Bishop.

Today, we feel blessed and privi­leged to have the Oratory under the pastoral care of Bishop Frank Dew­ane. Despite pressures from the AMU administration, the Oratory is presently a haven from idiosyncrat­ic and unorthodox practices that oc­curred on occasion, prior to episco­pal supervision.

The question now is the future of Ave Maria University, and its lack of legitimate recognition by the Catholic Church; consequently, I present to the Board of Trustees the following questions:

1. Why doesn’t the local Bishop have episcopal oversight of AMU, through permanent institutional par­ticipation in the Board of Trustees? Articles 5.1 and 5.2 of The Catho­lic University Within the Church, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, indicate that “ every Catholic University is to maintain communion with the uni­versal Church and the Holy See; it is to be in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the diocesan Bishops of the re­gion.” It further states that “ each Bishop has a responsibility to pro­mote the welfare of the Catholic Universities in his diocese, and has the right and duty to watch over the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic character.”

2. If AMU has pursued episcopal oversight through other means, oth­er than through the local Bishop (such as through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or directly through Rome) then AMU’s administration would be well- ad­vised to provide written proof that such steps have been taken, in pur­suit of official Catholic recognition. Or, is AMU simply not interested in taking the steps necessary to obtain episcopal recognition as authenti­cally Catholic? Is the stumbling block yet again a reluctance to sub­mit to the Catholic Church — to surrender power and control? Or does the AMU administration sim­ply not care about Ex Corde Eccle­siae?   If that is so, the words Ex Corde EcclesiaeVeritatis Splen­dor should be removed from the university seal immediately, as it is misleading students, their parents, donors, as well as current and pro­spective residents of the Town of Ave Maria.

3. Why doesn’t the administra­tion of AMU openly advertise its well- known stubborn bias for the Charismatic Movement and the “Praise & Worship” Mass, and its dislike of Sacred Music and the Ex­traordinary Form (Latin Mass)? Is it merely to entice traditional and or­thodox students (and residents) to AMU and to the Town of Ave Mar­ia? In other words, the type of Cath­olics that are drawn to Ex Corde Ec­clesiae?

Why not more Catholic honesty? This defiance against the expansion of the use of the Tridentine Rite goes not just against Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, but also against the advice of Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Wor­ship.

4. Why has the administration advertised that AMU is a Catholic University, when Article 3.3 of Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: “A Univer­sity may refer to itself as a Catholic University only with the consent of the competent ecclesiastical author­ity, in accordance with the condi­tions upon which both parties shall agree.” The administration certain­ly knows this. Again, more honesty is needed, or better — do whatever it takes to comply with Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

5. In consideration of the fact that AMU markets itself as faithful to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, to donors, stu­dents, and residents, is AMU a “Catholic institution” — or a for­profit real estate/educational corpo­ration?

6. Why serve on a Board of Trust­ees of a so-called “orthodox Catho­lic” university, if you are not going to take Ex Corde Ecclesiae serious­ly — the guiding, and most recent document from the Vatican on Cath­olic university administration?

Ave Maria University will never achieve serious recognition in Cath­olic academia, unless it strictly com­plies, in both words and actions, with Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Since the opening of the new campus here in Ave Maria in August 2007, I have seen the expectations and the mo­rale surrounding AMU deteriorate day by day. The current situation is not only damaging to its distin­guished faculty, but also to the fu­ture of the university, as well as to the Town of Ave Maria.

In light of the serious issues and questions presented above, as well as in consideration to the faculty, current and prospective students, parents, residents, donors, and bene­factors, it is incumbent upon the Board of Trustees to take the nec­essary steps to begin the process of requesting the resignation of the current administration at Ave Maria University, and to seek a new lead­ership — leadership that will sin­cerely and faithfully support and live up to AMU’s logo — Ex Corde EcclesiaeVeritatis Splendor.

Respectfully yours in Christ,

Marielena Montesino de Stuart


“AVE MARIA: The Promise, The Reality”  Part 2,   Part 3 , Part 4

The Chronicles of Ave Maria©

You may also read Marielena Montesino de Stuart’s commentaries through: RenewAmerica, USAToday, The Dallas Morning News, U.S. Politics Today (an EIN Service for Political Professionals-*) Poynter Online, Spero News, Daily Estimate, The New Liturgical Movement-Poland, The Naples Daily News, Les Femmes-The Truth, Culture War Notes,  ProLife Blogs,  The Wanderer, etc.

Copyright © Marielena Montesino de Stuart. All Rights Reserved.

Topics for Discussion:  Ave Maria, Ave Maria University, Ave Maria University Council, Ave Maria University Board of Trustees, Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Father Joseph Fessio SJ, Firing of Priest, Fiduciary Responsibility, Institutional Instability, Tom Monaghan, Nick Healy, Barron Collier, Ave Maria Development, Ave Maria University 2nd Mortgages, Naples Daily News, The Wanderer, Open Letter, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Summorum Pontificum, Latin Mass, Catholic town identity, Charismatic Movement, Healing Masses.

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