CELEBRATING THE ANNUNCIATION IN A BIG WAY: Happy Birthday, Mr. Monaghan! March 25, 2011

I wasn’t really there, in the orphanage.  My imagination is at work and has produced, no doubt, a jumble of truths and conjecture and flourishes.  But here is the story, as I see it.

*     *     *     *     *

The boy was only four when his father, a truck driver, died, leaving him with his brother and his young mother to fend for themselves.  Try as she might, his mother couldn’t afford to keep her children in her care; and so when he was six she placed the boy and his younger brother in foster care, and then in the St. Joseph Home for Boys.  There, the Felician Sisters instilled in him a deep faith.

[Here’s where Imagination kicks in.] 

Life in the orphanage with 45 other boys, though, was hard.  I mean, the Sisters sought to meet his physical and educational and spiritual needs—but how could he distinguish himself among the boys in the dorm?  From his youngest years, the boy wanted to excel, to do something special.

He did have at least one thing going for him:  He had had the good fortune to be born on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.  The Sisters considered this a very special birthday, indeed—and they celebrated the feast with prayer and song, and with a fine evening meal.  The boy developed a deep devotion to Mary, and   a special appreciation for the Feast of the Annunciation.

*     *     *     *     *

Fast forward about 48 years, to 1998.  The boy had grown to manhood, had done well in business—very well, in fact.  He had distinguished himself in the food industry, growing a pizza empire that stretched around the world.  He had indulged a passion for architecture, demonstrating his taste and skill with a world-class office park in Ann Arbor.  Always a sports fan, he had acquired his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers, then sold them—but not before a winning season.

He had always been generous with his vast resources; but in mid-life he had embraced what he called his “Rich Man’s Vow of Poverty.”  Spurred by faith to reach out and change the world, he divested himself of many of the trappings of wealth—selling his cars, boat and personal jet; no longer flying first-class; and simplifying his lifestyle.  With renewed vigor, he reiterated his life’s goal:  to take as many people with him to heaven as possible.  One of the key means of spreading the faith, he knew, would be through education.  Great wealth had lost its luster and, as he stated to a New York Times reporter, “I want to die broke.”

And always, there remained his devotion to Mary.

*     *     *     *     *

I was working for Tom Monaghan in 1998, on staff at Legatus, when he sold his stake in Domino’s Pizza for over $1 billion.  He hoped to devote his energies fulltime to Catholic causes, particularly education.

For a few weeks after the announcement, we speculated about just what that would mean.  Soon, though, the Ave Maria Foundation was born, and an abundance of Catholic ministries expanded through the Domino’s Farms complex.  At one point, I heard that 31 Catholic organizations operated on the property:  a radio station, bookstore, Catholic Campaign for America office, Right To Life, Priests for Life, Thomas More Society, Spiritus Sanctus elementary school, a preschool, and many others.

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel began his message to Mary with the words “Hail, Mary” (“Ave Maria”).  Year after year, Tom Monaghan’s generosity has burst forth on the Feast of the Annunciation through the many ministries and organizations which commemorate this feast in their titles:

  • Ave Maria Radio, headlined by Al Kresta and now, Teresa Tomeo, is heard across the country and—through its website (avemariaradio.net)—around the world.  It offers more original programming than any other Catholic radio outlet.
  • Ave Maria College was founded in the late 1990s in Ypsilanti, and has grown to become Ave Maria University, now headquartered in Naples, Florida.
  • The Ave Maria Funds, operated by the Schwartz Investment Council, is an investment program based on Catholic principles, with morally responsible investment guidelines guaranteeing that their stocks will not support abortion, contraception, stem cell research, or pornography.
  • The Ave Maria Mass, a full setting for the liturgy in Latin, is an original composition by Hollywood writer/director Steve Edwards.  It was introduced in February 2004 at the Legatus International Summit, and later recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.
  •  The Ave Maria Foundation is the umbrella organization over Catholic organizations including Legatus (the name is Latin for “Ambassador”), an organization of Catholic CEOs.

Today, March 25, marks the unveiling of a statue of the Annunciation on the campus of Ave Maria University.  Again, it is through the patronage of Tom Monaghan that we may enjoy this newest Marian landmark.

Thank you, Tom, for your long service to the Church—and Happy Birthday!  May God grant you His abundant blessings.

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