A Place in Florida – The ‘Pizza Pope’s’ Road to Heaven

There’s a place in Florida being built with the money you may have paid for a pizza you once had delivered to your home. Not the tip – the money for the pizza.

This place in Florida is the state’s newest town, Ave Maria, which Tom Monaghan is building on 5,000 acres in a former tomato field at the edge of the Everglades northeast of Naples a few miles from Immokalee. He hopes the town, which stresses family values, eventually will have 30,000 residents.

You may not recognize the name of this man who has been dubbed by the British press as the ‘Pizza Pope’. But you’ll recognize what made him famous: Domino’s Pizza. And, Pizza near me outside of Rome, it would be difficult to find a more devout Catholic. Some would say ‘rabid’ or ‘fanatical’, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

The story of Tom Monaghan is a typical Horatio Alger story:

  • Father died of ulcers at age 29 when Tom was 4.
  • Mother put him into a Michigan orphanage run by Polish Catholic nuns, where his devotion to Catholicism became an obsession.
  • As a high school freshman, he decided to become a priest, but a year later was expelled by the seminary – for pillow fighting, among other things.
  • Back in public high school, he graduated 44th in a class of 44. But his yearbook photo has this caption: ‘The harder I try to be good, the worse I get; but I may do something sensational yet.’
  • He dreamed of being an architect like his idol, Frank Lloyd Wright, but his bad grades and lack of money ruled that out.
  • So in 1956 he joined the Marines, served three years, and hitchhiked from San Diego back to Ypsilanti, MI, with only $15 in his pocket.
  • Six times he enrolled in college, only to fail to become more than a freshman.
  • In 1960, when he was 23, he and his brother borrowed $900 and bought their first pizza place in Ypsilanti, near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — a hotbed of pizza-eaters. Early on, you had your choice of delivered cuisine: pizza, pizza or pizza. Extras were added later.
  • And, yes, in that first year, he delivered his own pizzas. In fact, he met his wife while delivering a pizza.


And, as they say, the rest is history. As Domino’s grew, Monaghan’s riches grew — despite many obstacles. ‘I don’t think anyone in business had a tougher time than I had,’ he now recalls. ‘My faith sustained me.’

And he acted the part of a rich man. ‘I went overboard’ in buying worldly things, he says. It started with his 1983 purchase of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. The team won the World Series the next year, prompting publication of his 1986 autobiography ‘Pizza Tiger’. He also bought collections of cars and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

That’s about the time he became ultra active in Catholic education, including pro-life causes that prompted picketing of his Ann Arbor stores, and he decided the reason God put him on Earth was to get people into Heaven. He sold the Tigers. And, eventually – in 1998 – he sold Domino’s for $1 billion.

Since then, his outspoken views have dogged his proselytizing efforts. He has become a lightning rod for all kinds of controversies, including pro-life causes and opposition to homosexuality. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem to bother him.

What’s more, his Ave Maria project has not escaped the controversies. What sparked the controversy here was his statements early on that ‘there is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria Town,’ and (paraphrasing) there won’t be any contraceptives or adult magazines in the drugstores, either. He had to dance around those statements, finally conceding such products will not be banned.

So what led him to establish not only a pro-life community near Naples, but also the first Catholic university to be built in the United States in 50 years – one he hopes one day will rival Notre Dame?

In short, Ann Arbor politicians rejected his plans to build the university there. Rural Collier County – with a more conservative population more likely to accept his views of the purpose of life (he hoped) – seemed a more likely place, a place in Florida that he was familiar with.

The economic climate has slowed construction in Ave Maria, but the progress is still impressive. There’s already the new $240-million Ave Maria University, which opened in 2007, hoping to attract 5,000 students. It now has 600.


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