Oratory: SOLD!

By Joseph Munning and Adrienne Conley | Co-Editors-in-Chief 

 PC: Sarah Schicitano

The Church of Ave Maria is Under New Management.

The sale of the Quasi-Parish of Ave Maria Oratory was announced on January 19 of this year in an address on the steps of the church with some words given by Bishop Dewane, President Towey, and University Founder and Chancellor Thomas Monaghan. “It was my dream that the Church would be at the center of life for the University and Town of Ave Maria, and this agreement ensures that,” said Monaghan.

The former, canonically precise name has been changed to Ave Maria Parish Church signifying its elevation to a parish within the Diocese of Venice in Florida. The Oratory was established by the Bishop as a quasi-parish in 2008, meaning that as the privately owned sanctuary of the University it would still serve the needs of the people of the community like any normal church.   

This striking landmark at the center of Ave Maria geographically and socially is visually impressive, even to some of us who have lived under it for years. The church is 206 ft. long, over 100 ft. tall inside, and occupies 27,000 sq. ft. When it was constructed, it took 150 cement trucks 17 hours to pour the foundation, making it the longest cement pour in southwest Florida ever. The Oratory was originally designed to seat 3,300 worshippers, but with the final plans the building was scaled down to seat 1,100 for a much reduced cost.

The building was designed by Ave Maria founder Tom Monaghan himself, and takes after the Frank Lloyd Wright style reflected in other buildings throughout the campus. Two other chapels, Thorncrown in Eureka Springs and another named after Mildred B. Cooper in Bella Vista, also served as major sources of inspiration for the chapel. They were designed by architect E. Faye Jones, a student under Frank Lloyd Wright, who followed his teacher with bold, beautiful designs. Because Monaghan’s design required the steel “I-beams” to be bent in a way that had never been done before, a tool was invented by the firm Cannon Design that would run a current through the beams to speed up the molecules, thus making them malleable. The neo-gothic church uses a total of 1,750 tons of steel and can withstand up to category 5 hurricanes.

Upon entering the church, the giant 23.8 ft. tall crucifix immediately stands out. The corpus alone took Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz ten months to compete, and it weighs 1600 lbs. It barely cleared the door when put in the church, with only a 1/16th of an inch space to spare! The entire crucifix weighs a total of 4200 lbs. and was put together on the altar and then raised up to its current position. The tabernacle, though dwarfed by comparison, is one of the largest in the country.

The details of the church, such as the pews, lantern-style lights, and stations of the cross were meticulously planned. The ends of the pews alone, also designed by Monaghan, require 54 individual pieces of wood each. The 11 ft., 800 lb. lanterns that line the sides of the church took 500 hours each to complete. The stations of the cross were donated, having been salvaged from a church in the Detroit area that was scheduled for demolition. These 90-year-old, plaster-marble mix bas-relief sculptures fit perfectly in their pre-constructed frames when they were received.

The newly established Parish can concentrate on the Spiritual and Pastoral needs of everyone in the Town of Ave Maria, which is experiencing a very positive growth.”

-Susan Laielli, Director of Communications Diocese of Venice

The sale of the church comes right after the end of Ave Maria’s best year in real estate. Ave Maria Development claimed 342 homes sold in 2016. Numbers like that have great potential to place additional demands on the parish to serve the community. According to Diocesan Director of Communication, Susan Laielli, “The newly established Parish can concentrate on the Spiritual and Pastoral needs of everyone in the Town of Ave Maria, which is experiencing a very positive growth.” At the ceremony Bishop Dewane praised the solid relationship between the Diocese and University, saying that it was “encouraging to see this vibrant faith-filled community under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, continue to grow and strengthen.”

Because of the limited space around the church, a 2.5 acre plot adjacent to the northwest corner of Ave Maria Blvd. and Clancy Ave. near the tennis courts has been donated by the University where a Parish Center and offices will be constructed by the Diocese. AMU donated another 10 acre parcel adjacent to Camp Keais Rd. on the west side of the street. The Diocese has not promised any specific plans for the vacant land as of yet. But according to Laielli, Bishop Dewane is committed to the pastoral needs of the rapidly growing parish and school. She says the Diocese and the University “will continue to work together to make Ave Maria Community a special and desirable place to live.” Both the University and the Parish, according to their agreement, are coordinating a schedule so that the church will be available for the school to use in important functions like choir recitals, convocations, and baccalaureate Masses. According to President Towey, the school will be able to use the church for those events but will pay for any costs such as cleanup costs.

Churches are owned by Diocese, not by laypeople, student tuition shouldn’t be funding the operation of a parish church.”

-President Jim Towey

“I don’t think students have noticed any change” said President Towey, “It’s been a month.”  Mass times have remained the same, as has much of the use of the church.  “Churches are owned by Diocese, not by laypeople,” he reflected, saying that he thinks it’s a good move for the school and the Diocese to have this new arrangement.  “Student tuition shouldn’t be funding the operation of a parish church.” Many of the early Sunday Masses saw higher attendance from townspeople than students. Towey said he had come to “recognize the obvious, that is was a parish church, and that students are part of this parish.”   

The University provided the church and donated 12 acres of land. The Diocese, according to public records, exchanged $8,000,000  for the new parish. The deal seems like a win for the Diocese, which can serve the people of this growing pocket of the state without investing two or three times what they paid for a new church nearby. With the structure in place, they can move right into constructing parish offices and a hall. The University wins by no longer having to pay utilities and upkeep for a parish church serving so many more people than the students and faculty.  According to President Towey, the Bishop has permitted AMU to renovate one of the University’s other chapels and make it bigger for student Masses. The two parties considered the whole deal for about a year with the discussion starting between a member of the Ave Maria Trustee Board and Bishop Dewane.  The trustees discussed the details at three consecutive meetings before both parties agreed to the transaction this January.  

This sale demonstrates just how much the AMU Board of Trustees are still open to big changes for the school.  Whether it’s a move from Ann Arbor to Florida or the rapid development of new majors, Ave will make bold moves to develop and grow.  The deal also signifies that the Diocese and the University have big plans for the both the residential and academic communities. Both organizations seem to be betting on a lasting trend of booming growth. While the name and management of the church has changed: parishioners, students, faculty and even tourists will still worship together at Holy Mass. All are welcome to gather at Ave Maria.


Originally published in the March 2017 print issue of the Gyrene Gazette

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