Ave Maria University, the nation's first Roman Catholic university in four decades, aims to be different.
Only months into its first year, the university has outlined plans to build a prairie-style campus surrounding a gleaming, towering church -- expected to be among the nation's largest -- while offering a liberal arts education that remains faithful to the church's teachings.
The school befits the example set by its founder, Thomas Monaghan, who has pledged $240 million of his fortune amassed from Domino's Pizza to build the campus and $300 million to establish an endowment.
"The bottom line is to help people get to heaven," said Monaghan, the founder of the pizza chain and a former owner of the Detroit Tigers. "And I feel the best way to do that as a Catholic is to help strengthen the Catholic Church."
Administrators say the school, which is not affiliated with any religious order or diocese, could offer an alternative to some Catholic colleges and universities that have become more secular. It represents one of the few Catholic institutions to open since the changes of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which helped modernize the church.
"I think a kind of culture of questioning and dissent arose, and there was a loss of confidence among the Catholic hierarchy, the Catholic priesthood and the Catholic intellectuals. I think the pendulum is now swinging back," said Nicholas Healy, the university's president.
"There is a regaining of confidence in the church teaching, in the tremendous legacy of the Catholic intellectual life over the centuries," he said.
The opening of the school has come at a time when the church grapples with clergy sex abuse cases nationwide. "We see that as a symptom of the failure to teach and accept Catholic doctrine on sexual morality," Healy said.
The university's more conservative approach is representative of some Catholics who are more interested in keeping some of the observances practiced before the Second Vatican Council, said Monika Hellwig, president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Following Vatican II, "not everyone in the church wanted to go that fast and perhaps not everyone wanted to go in that direction, and there have been considerable tensions ever since," she said.
Ave Maria opened its doors to more than 100 students in September on an interim campus originally intended as a retirement community. The cream-colored clubhouse serves as the main building, housing administrative offices, a cafeteria and a meeting room where classes and daily Mass are held.
Students said the total cost of less than $18,000 a year for tuition, room and board and fees was more affordable than many Catholic colleges and described a "pioneer" spirit of attending a university during its first year. The school hopes eventually to enroll 5,000 students.
"Here you just grab a couple of other students who are interested in the idea, and you can pretty much put together an intramural for the whole college because we're so small," said 23-year-old senior John Chilimigras of Bay St. Louis, Miss., the school's first student body president.
Most of the students are Catholic. About half attend Mass every day and students, faculty and administrators pause three times a day when the campus's Angelus bell rings, signaling a time of prayer.
In September, a group of students started nightly "rosary walks," proceeding around the campus while praying.
"It's awesome to be able to live your faith and also receive a good education at the same time," said Paul Schreiner, an 18-year-old freshman from Tiffin, Ohio.
The close attention to the faith has drawn thousands of admirers. The school has 10 "Founders" clubs of supporters in Florida, Michigan and Washington, D.C., and plans to open organizations in Georgia and Texas next month.
During the past 18 months, Ave Maria has received contributions from about 25,000 donors, raising about $3 million. The school recently picked up pledges of $5 million apiece from John Donahue, chairman of Pittsburgh-based Federated Investors Inc., and an anonymous donor from New Orleans. Two others have pledged $1 million.
"Others recognize that bad things are happening in the church and that education is not what it has been and should be," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, the university's chancellor. "So they see this as an opportunity to start something fresh and return to the roots."
At the center of the new campus will be the church, which Monaghan first sketched on a tablecloth during a meal at a Naples restaurant. The Oratory of Ave Maria will offer seating for more than 3,300 congregants, feature a 60-foot crucifix embedded into its facade and anchor the campus and surrounding community.
The church and campus, built between Naples and Immokalee, are expected to open in the summer of 2006. Another part of the project includes a town, also called Ave Maria, and a golf course. The school has a sister institution, Ave Maria College, in Ypsilanti, Mich., with 250 students.
The university will be developed through a partnership with the Barron Collier Cos., an agricultural, real estate and landholdings firm established by the founder of Collier County and operated by his family.
Some environmentalists remain concerned that the new community will disrupt the endangered Florida panther population, requiring new and wider roads and bringing more development.
"You're creating real trouble by placing massive development virtually right next to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge," said Frank Jackalone, staff director of the Sierra Club's St. Petersburg office. He said the organization is considering possible legal action.
University officials said they have been attentive to environmental concerns, bringing in experts to ensure that the "controlled growth" of the new community does not damage the environment.
For Monaghan, the school represents an opportunity to educate thousands of young adults in the church tenets.
He does not focus on legacies but has a long list of goals, including high academic standards, remaining faithful to conservative church doctrine, providing a safe atmosphere for learning and "more vocations to the priesthood and nuns than any institution in the world."