I visited the town and university of Ave Maria today and I am still in shock at what was pulled off in the middle of a sod farm, orange grove and a tomato field in rural Florida. Ave Maria (map) is located about a twenty minute drive east of I-75 just south of Immokolee. The driving experience though the development is impressive, with slight turns, twist and round abouts with lots of freshly planted oak and magnolia trees, giving you the impression of a french countryside drive through an alle. The town square is not visible from the main entrance on Immokolee Road. The oratory is a monumental architectural wonder, that you happen upon. You stop your car in the middle of the plaza and just drop your jaw in amazement of the oratory and its setting and scale. I have many times looked at the Ave Maria website, the renderings of the town plan are good, but the real thing is beyond expectations. The oratory is constructed of Florida limestone built in the manner of a European cathedral with what looks like stone coral from the Florida coast as finishing architectural trim detail. The main entrance is a three door monumental entrance. That is all you see because the interior is still under construction. I visited the Pulte Homes sales office right next door where they show a 3-D animated tour of the inside of the oratory, stunning, reminiscent of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City or St Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. The university campus is an organic extension to the oratory, lending itself to mediation and contemplation as you engage the sacred mysteries. If you have every visited the old town portion of Krakow, Poland you get the same feel that Jagiellonian University and St. Mary's Basilica offer. The university is built in a Frank Lloyd Wright's "Prairie Style" design, it blends well with the surrounding buildings and allows the oratory to take center stage.
I attended Mass in the Student Union building, I was struck by a few things. First, I had forgotten what a good Novus Ordo Mass looked and felt like. Mass was just like I experienced in the 70 and 80's. Alter servers who looked like they wanted to be there. The cantor and organist were stationed in the rear of the room, hence becoming apart of the faithful and not a part of the show. Most of the 500 people who attended the 12 noon Mass, were Ave Maria students and faculty. Most of the communicants received the Eucharist on the tongue and it was nice to see the slight bow by a majority of the congregation. The homily was on Salvation through Christ and making Him the center of our lives. When I went to a state college in the 80's there was no excitement or electricity in the air. The students that I encountered knew they were apart of something special and they relished the experience. When the oratory is completed and 2,000 students are jammed shoulder to shoulder into the oratory, they will experience a Mass like they have never experienced and Christ will be the body and soul of this dream next to a sod farm.
I saw Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. perhaps the most influential Jesuit in the last 50 years striding like a medicent preacher of old, heading from his home, through an open field and heading to the campus. He was greeted by those who saw him as a Catholic "Hero". Fr. Fessio is a very tall man, I would guess his height to be 6'-6". He wore traditional black clerical clothing with a roman collar, but he was wearing a pair of black Teva's with no socks. Fr. Fessio has published millions of books and is on a first name basis with the Holy Father, but he looked like he wanted to be no other place in the world other than at Ave Maria University, answering a call of our Lord.
Ave Maria has set a new bar and broke ground that future Catholic apostalates will be able to take advantage of.