A Visit to the Chapel at Ave Maria University
The campus of Ave Maria University has been carved out of the tomato fields and drained Everglades of rural southwestern Florida. The college and town of Ave Maria are found after a forty-five minute drive north-east of Naples, four miles outside the nearest community of Immokalee. It is unmistakably the vision of Domino’s Pizza founder and Frank Lloyd Wright devotee Thomas Monaghan, who has focused clearly on a plan to “get to heaven, and bring as many as possible with me.” In light of this goal, Monaghan has centered his endeavors on Catholic education here, from the earliest years through college and graduate programs. The university was originally to be housed in Ann Arbor on the grounds and in the Frank Lloyd Wright-style buildings of Domino Farms. Local opposition to the expansion and variance requests for this site eventually led to the decision to move the plan to Florida.
The facade and piazza of the new chapel at Ave Maria University. Photo: wikimedia.org/Fr James Bradley
This was my first visit to the town of Ave Maria. It was obvious to me that the buildings were new and reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright. The property includes a golf course, residential housing, public services, and the many divisions of the university. The parish deacon calls the impressive experience of travelling the three mile journey from the side road through the well-cultivated grounds: “the road into the Emerald City with a sacred bent.” Driving onto the campus I noticed the oratory façade from over a mile away. It indeed stood out as a central theme for the buildings surrounding it.
Growth in the town, hampered by the suffering American economy, had recently been limited to one family per week, and as of January 2010 the population is 1,100. The university student enrollment is currently 725, with plans to build that number up to 5,500. In the light of Monaghan’s Roman Catholic vision and the importance of faith in support and direction of education, the chapel of Ave Maria has been designed to be the centerpiece of the university and the town planned for an eventual 20,000 residents. “Center” is the appropriate word to describe it. The location of what has been now called the “oratory” is an obvious visual focus. The massive chapel, to date the largest concrete pour in Florida, stands out and calls out to the students and residents as they gather in the piazza and shop at the stores that surround it. The project is the architectural design of Harry L. Warren, AIA, of Cannon Design, Grand Island, NY. Original plans called for a 185-foot-tall building with 3,300 seats. Due to rising costs the structure was reduced to 104 feet with 1,100 seats and an overall size of 25,755 square feet.
The university chose the canonical term “oratory,” as the edifice is a place of prayer set apart for devotion. It is primarily a university chapel, yet it also serves the town of Ave Maria. The local bishop has dedicated the church and assigned one of his own priests to administer the liturgical life there. As such, the oratory is called a “quasi-parish” and will remain so until future growth causes that status to change. For official parish status, a church must be owned here by the Diocese of Venice, and not by the university. Father Robert Tatman, the parish administrator, spoke to me about his vision  concerning the architecture of the chapel and how that architecture assists in his ministry there. “The architecture,” he said, “should direct us to focus on what is happening ahead, without distraction.” He therefore referred to the beauty that needs to be found in the sanctuary, overcoming any other architectural feature or flaw.
The architectural firm of Andrea Clark Brown of Naples is already on board with modified plans and models that will set a new mood, express the intentions of the university, and better respect a connection with church history. Mrs. Brown will design either life-size statues or reliefs of the Twelve Apostles shown in positions where they seem to be in movement. She plans to use stone in the altar, the ambo, the altar rail, and the stand for the central tabernacle. She will use the same stone with wood accents for the seating. The new sanctuary is so critical to the overall design that no final comment may be made about the architectural effectiveness until this element is completed.
Mr. Monaghan spoke to me about the chapel as “the Golden Dome of Ave Maria” that he hopes will become a symbol like Notre Dame’s dome. He reflected upon a work in progress over the next five years that would hopefully and eventually include a freestanding bell tower and the largest outdoor cross in America—sixty-five feet high with a thirty-foot corpus. Monaghan foresees covered walkways that will assist worshippers as they travel to the chapel from the adjacent buildings. A four manual virtual pipe organ, Opus 5, has already been installed by Marshall & Ogletree of Boston. A rose window sixteen feet across will eventually be set over the front doors. A Carrara marble relief of the Annunciation embraced to the left and right by archangel side panels is to be found below the window. The work of Hungarian sculptor Marton Varo, the relief will share its name with “Annunciation Circle,” the piazza facing the church.
The architecture of Ave Maria Oratory has not been without sharp criticism. Called “a design based on a suspicion of architecture” by Denis McNamara (Sacred Architecture 9) , his words are reinforced by others who observe that glass and exposed steel are fundamentally a modernist approach to design. McNamara points to the irony in this style as a showpiece for a new era of traditional renewal. He notes that there is a return in many places across the United States to a genuine use of traditional design methods. Though this is thought to be evidenced by high ceilings, a long nave, permanent pews, symbols, and iconography, McNamara has argued that the architecture itself plays a sacramental role that the designers of the Oratory may not have considered.
Photo: wikimedia.org/Fr James Bradley
While expressing his praise for Monaghan’s generosity and his gift to the Church, Dr. McNamara related to me his concern that many  questions may not have been asked in the discussions of how the design should proceed. Important for McNamara is that church planners ask themselves: “How will this building become a sacrament of the heavenly Jerusalem, God and man reunited at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb?” Further questions emerge. Should sacramental theology be emphasized more than a tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright? Is the design overly concerned with creating a logo for the university? In the light of Monaghan’s respect for Catholic tradition, have architects and consultants been hired who have a proven record of a modernist approach to church architecture rather than a sacramental approach? May the design be accused of being flawed by choosing the modernist insistence on the expression of industrially produced I-beams? Is the created visual effect one of instability as many of the interior beams are attached by flanges rather than landing securely on the vertical posts of the nave? Traditional architecture always clarifies and beautifies structure. “The exterior of tall buildings tries to express their own structural logic and stability,” McNamara recalls, “and spreads their mass over a greater surface area at the bottom.” This façade gives the building a bowed, top-heavy appearance. The Church’s vision of a building as “the radiant order of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Bride before her Bridegroom” has been lost in what he thinks have been many decisions resulting in disorder and mistaken proportions.
The current interior effect of this structure creates a rather “Klingon-like” environment. It is an austere architecture, that could be accused of utilitarianism in human terms. However, I would prefer to mitigate some of the criticism by noting that this chapel and even the skeleton structure are by no means finished. For example, there has been some discussion of muting the cold steel with color by the addition of wood accents. This would have a softening effect on the current bare and strikingly dark impression of the architecture.
Photo: wikimedia.org/Fr James Bradley
There is indeed more to the chapel than its large skeleton inner structure. Some would say the effect is overpowering and is reinforced by the large central crucifix. Light coming from louvers behind the skeleton and the circle of light above the sanctuary is currently inadequate to provide enough illumination for the entire church. The lamps in their placement hanging from the inner-most skeleton arch are ineffective to light the nave and had to be augmented by spotlights hidden behind the steel. Florescent lighting shining up on the fine Stations of the Cross that were obtained from a church in Detroit, ironically provide too much light shining upward. The required lighting for worshippers and the best illuminative effect to highlight the design may not blend well if turned on at the same time. The original plans for the chapel included the use of more glass, but the location in the Everglades and the building restrictions to protect structures from possible hurricanes, necessitated that the first design be changed. This deeply affects the lighting in the building and its illumination becomes more of an issue. The external lighting placed around the outside of the chapel, however, succeeds in its plan to present each evening the building and the piazza as a lit beacon for the surrounding area.
Photo: wikimedia.org/Fr James Bradley
Even though the use of glass has been minimized, the structure already suffers from leaks and one may find pails in the choir loft that catch falling rain in the wet season. This is a tremendously disappointing flaw in a new building. Wind and rain from the west are particularly strong at this location. The steel beams that continue outside take on the heat of the day. They expand and contract and leaks can and do develop when afternoon rains are added to the mix. There seems to be some agreement that the stark skeleton structure, which even escapes to the outside walls in a spider-like fashion, may need to be muted in some way. The concern over a machine-like quality, as opposed to promoting church buildings as heavenly icon, could be partially resolved in the soft colors and professional carving of Marton Varo. Further, twelve golden statues of the Apostles placed over the doors have begun to address this point. Critics remain skeptical in the face of that hope. Meanwhile, the Everglade Oratory will take many more years to complete.