Last Thursday, I was very honored to receive an honorary doctorate from Ave Maria University in Florida.
Ave Maria is a relatively new Catholic university that was founded by Tom Monaghan, a man who had been raised in a Catholic orphanage and became a multi-millionaire as the founder of Domino’s Pizza.
At one point in his life after reading C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” he had a deep conversion and has decided to use all of his wealth on behalf of the Church and society.
I first became aware of his work when he rebuilt the cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, after the earthquake there in 1972. He also sent his plane to the Virgin Islands with generators when I was trying to open the schools after Hurricane Hugo.
We opened the Catholic schools immediately in tents but I needed generators to be able to flush the toilets. I told the pastors: If we can flush the toilets we can open the schools.
The public schools were closed for about two years, but we opened the Catholic schools immediately. His jet plane brought the generators down and, when he landed, all the people on St. Croix were so excited. The planes said Domino’s Pizza on them and we were living on coconut milk and cold baked beans at the time. They said “The bishop sent out for pizza!”
This was my first visit to the campus there in Florida, near Naples. The president is Dr. Nick Healy, who is the uncle of a Boston priest serving on the faculty of St. John’s, Father Bob Oliver. The university has about 800 students at that campus, another 500 in Nicaragua, plus the law school, which they have moved down to Naples.
They have something like 1,000 acres of land for expansion. The plan is to make this a very large Catholic university. Tom Monaghan said his vision is to have a Notre Dame-sized university in the south, with very special emphasis on the religious formation of the student body and promoting vocations to priesthood, Christian marriage, consecrated life, and lay ministries.
It’s amazing what has been achieved there.
They have established the university in a part of the state that is a very rural area where they grow tomatoes and oranges, and where life can be hard for people. But they felt called to locate it in that area rather than closer to Naples in order to be able to serve the needy.
They have a beautiful chapel, which they just dedicated recently.
We met a number of the students from Boston who are there, and some of the members of the faculty who had gone to Boston College.
I was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters, which they presented to me at the end of the Baccalaureate Mass I celebrated the evening before the commencement.
At the commencement itself, they awarded two other honorary doctorates — one to novelist Mary Higgins Clark and the other to Catholic entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Hanna.
Mary is a very outstanding Catholic lay woman. She recently was named a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, which is the highest honor a lay person can receive from the Holy Father.
Ave Maria, like Steubenville, Magdalen College and Thomas More College, are colleges that have come about to give a very serious Catholic formation to their students through their strong Catholic identity.