Michael Novak had been telling me about Ave Maria, ever since I returned to the United States in 2008 after living overseas for seven years. In 2011, after several surgeries, he invited me to come to live here and help him out. I gladly accepted, because I long had a special interest in the idea of a university (a la Cardinal Newman)—not only as an abstraction, but as a living community—and had been deeply involved in Penn State University and its community in the Nittany Valley for several decades.
When I moved to Ave Maria, what I was most surprised by—and most impressed by—was how the community was knitted together by three interlocking institutions: the University, the Oratory, and the Donahue Academy. According to the vision, these were designed to work together to build a community where learning, caring, and worship were seamlessly woven together.
The surprise in this mix was the predominant role of the Donahue Academy. When I came here, I saw and heard more pride and sheer joy over the Academy than over any other part of the community.
I wondered about this, and soon came to know its secret. What brought the community together were its children. The Academy educated the children of the University faculty and staff, as well as all the other members of the community. While the Oratory dominated the architecture of the town, and furnished its iconic image, and the University dominated the news, it was the children, always the children, who captured the heart of the community.
This was a community, I realized, where the highest ideals of Catholic doctrine were being lived in real time. The family was at the center, and the children were at the heart of the both the family and the community. Forgive me for saying it so, but God! I loved seeing the children! I used to take Hollow for a walk early, so that I could arrive at the Bean at 7:00 to sit for an hour or so, watching them walk and ride their bikes by on their way to school, watch their parents bringing them on three wheeled back seats, and greet the wonderful nuns on their way to school.
And I realized, too, the stroke of genius in Tom Monaghan’s initial vision. He had planned for the Academy as much as for the University and the Oratory. All three were interwoven. The faculty had tuition discounts for their children at the Academy. As parents, they were as much involved, and expected to contribute as much, to the education of their children in the Academy as to the education they were providing to the children of others at the University. Many of the children at the Academy would someday be students at the University, and some of its staff, and later, hopefully, some of its faculty.
The Oratory was the spiritual center of both the University and the Academy. For the children and the students at the University, the Oratory was their chapel; for their parents and other members of the community, it was their “quasi” parish. For the community, it was the presence of God and His Word in their midst.
It was magical—or miraculous—how well they all fit together. The original vision was to have them all on land in common ownership, overseen by one set of trustees, though each had its own sub-governing bodies. The pastor ran the Oratory; the administration and faculty ran the University; and the Academy had its own headmaster and board. They were all to be interlocking, mutually supporting, and mutually interdependent. Although often referred to as the Board of Trustees of the University, these trustees were in fact trustees of all three. Indeed, the whole community was entrusted to the Board of Trustees.
So, it came as quite a shock when I read the news that the Oratory had been sold. It seemed like the soul of the University was being ripped away from it—as though the very seal of the University—which features the shape of Oratory—was now to be defaced by a realtor’s “FOR SALE” sign pasted across it.
But, even more heart-rending was the news this week that the Board of Trustees was selling the Donahue Academy. With this sale, following the sale of the Oratory, it seems that the institutional framework of the community is being ripped to shreds.
I cannot imagine what possessed the Board of Trustees to abandon these two pillars of our community in Christ, and allow them to be severed from the University. True, the Diocese will shepherd them well. But it means that the University, which once stood solidly on three legs, will henceforth hobble into the future on only one.
What is also inexplicable is that Tom Monaghan—whose vision brought all of these institutions together, and, indeed, brought the whole community of Ave Maria together—would silently stand by as these institutions were separated from each other.
In any event, I thank God that I was able, at least for a little while, to experience the flowering of these three institutions working together so beautifully. I know it was so real, and yet it now seems like a dream.
So, my fellow Ave Marians, it is perhaps only with the feelings expressed in these lines that that we will be able to look back at what once was:
Each evening from December to December,
Before you fall asleep upon your cot,
Think back of all the tales that you remember