I wrote about the small town of Ave Maria, Florida last month here at CatholicStand, but I was still curious about a lot of things I couldn’t find online.
Calah Alexander, who blogs at Barefoot and Pregnant, was kind enough to answer some questions about the town, which she lives in. Here is a peek into Ave Maria, Florida from Calah:
1. What is the current population of your town?
According to the Almighty Google, the current population of Ave Maria is 28,273.
2. Is there an estimate of how many of those people are Catholic?
There is no official estimate that I am aware of. I\’d be sad if there were, really, because while Ave Maria has an undeniably strong Catholic presence, there are people of many other beliefs living here. Some of my closest friends in Ave are not Catholic, and their presence greatly enriches Ave Maria. Also, they make kick-ass cocktails.
3. What is parish life like? Are there many different movements or groups? How many priests are there?
This is a question I had to get some help on. My season in life right now, with many small and school-aged children, does not allow much parish participation outside Mass and confession. I actually asked my neighbor, but she\’s in the same position, so our combined knowledge is based entirely on things we\’ve heard about.
Many of the women in the town just did a 33 day consecration to Mary. There is a Knights of Columbus chapter, and a pro-life group that does various work: praying at Planned Parenthood and delivering roses to mothers when they baptize their babies are the ones I\’m aware of. I was shocked when I got a knock on the door while my husband was decorating the cake after our youngest son\’s baptism, and a vaguely familiar neighbor was standing there with a rose! I\’ve never even heard of such a thing, but it was a delightful surprise. The whole parish, plus the K-12 Donahue Academy, do a lot to raise money or collect items for the poor (especially in the neighboring town of Immokalee), or to deliver to expectant mothers in Immokalee. The adoration chapel is a big deal. The parish handles all the normal parish activities as well, like altar server training, youth choir, a rosary group, RCIA, and first communion prep, which my daughter is in right now. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it\’s pretty much like a typical parish, though perhaps with more involvement.
I have no idea how many priests there are. I know the parish pastor and the priest who baptized our son, but Ave Maria is still a university town. That means many of the priests are Ave Maria University affiliated priests (professors, or priests with campus ministry) who volunteer to say Mass at the Oratory.
I have no idea about movements. My neighbor reports that she knows there are members of Opus Dei living here in town, and members of Communion & Liberation.
4. What would you say are the greatest advantages and disadvantages of living in Ave Maria?
The greatest advantage is without a doubt the small-town environment. Sure, it can get suffocating, but being able to let your kids play on the street outside with the rest of the kids until it gets dark is unreal. It\’s like the way life should be for families. The kids are outside all the time, they troop in and out of front doors in groups, you know their names, their parents, their personalities, and whether they\’re prefer water or milk. More, you know that the other parents on the block know the same things about your kids. They are expected to follow a consistent standard of boundaries by more than their own parents, which reinforces the concept of an immutable system of morality for them from a young age.
It\’s not without advantages for the parents, either. We have neighbors on either side who I am constantly borrowing sugar or fish sauce from, who drop their kids off when they need to run an errand and who take mine when I need to run an errand. They stop by for the occasional coffee in the mornings and the occasional glass of wine in the evenings. And there\’s where you run into the disadvantages…I\’m the kind of mom who used to stay in my pajamas till noon. That gets a little embarrassing when you start to realize that every other mom in your neighborhood puts on real clothes before breakfast and walks outside instead of hiding in their house with the shades drawn, spending the morning with Facebook friends. And it gets even more embarrassing when they stop by and you realize you can\’t just not answer the door because they can see you through that stupid window. And so the disadvantage of having no anonymity, no hole to hide in, becomes an advantage.
I finally got tired of feeling lazy and slobby and started getting dressed (at least in workout clothes) before breakfast. That started a string of changes that has had enormous positive benefits on our family. There\’s a reason why families have historically existed in communities. Mothers learn from each other. In our modern world, that can be chafing at first. In a world that insists that “every choice is equally valid”, it can feel like judgment, like condescension, to butt up against the fact that there are better and worse ways of living out a vocation to motherhood or fatherhood. But if you\’re open to it, the unspoken criticism that you feel when watching someone lead by example usually has a constructive effect.
5. How often do you see the founder of the town, Tom Monaghan?
I have never seen him. To the best of my knowledge, he is rarely in Ave.
6. Is it true that most residents follow Church teaching and do not use contraceptives? And that contraceptives are not readily available?
Oh, I\’m sure some people use contraceptives and some don\’t, and I\’ve never noticed condoms at the grocery store, but that\’s really the wrong way of looking at it. If you focus on the negative rule (don\’t use contraceptives) and whether or not people are adhering to it, you\’re missing the whole point and breeding a culture of self-righteousness. Ave Maria is a town literally bursting with life. There are kids everywhere, lighting things up with their smiles and laughter and mucking things up with their recklessness and downright naughtiness. I was firmly convinced that I didn\’t like other people\’s kids until I moved to Ave, and it was a shock to realize that while I didn\’t like children in the abstract (because they\’re messy and annoying and take time to deal with) it\’s completely impossible to not like this child standing in front of me. How could I not like this child? She\’s so sweet and gentle, or she\’s wild and energetic, or he\’s introspective and fascinating. Being surrounded by life reminds me that life is about other people. Being surrounded by life reminds me that I\’m not always right, not always good, and not always the most important person in the room. A self-righteous, me-centric life is a sterile, predictable, depressing life. Kids make that kind of life impossible, simply by being.
7. Are there any other lifestyle differences that make the town different from most American towns?
I think the overwhelming presence of children is the primary thing that makes Ave Maria remarkably different. Kids are welcome everywhere. No one expects you to leave kids at home, or if they do it\’s clearly stated and childcare is usually provided. The town events are always family-oriented, there are high chairs in every restaurant, and no one freaks out at a breastfeeding mom or parent dragging a screaming toddler through the grocery store. That\’s part of life. We\’ve either been there, hope to be there, or wish we weren\’t there. Sympathy and smiles all around.
People also tend to live more slowly here. There\’s always afternoon bike rides and chatting on street corners. There\’s only one grocery store in town and it closes at 7 pm, so errands are necessarily limited. The nearest major town is 45 minutes away. You really have to learn to plan ahead, but that means you can relax more. No one rushes to store at the last minute for an ingredient or to Target at 11 pm for a feverish baby. You make substitutions, borrow from neighbors, and get creative. You have to develop the humility to rely on the assistance of others, and the generosity to offer assistance in turn. It\’s a more human life.
8. Is there a movie theater? A local park? What are typical weekend activities? Do most people go out of town on weekends or often?
There are no movie theaters or malls or even a Target. There are two major parks in town, plenty of tennis courts, bike trails, a waterpark, swimming pools, golf courses, soccer fields, baseball diamonds…it\’s very much a town that revolves around outdoor activities for entertainment. Usually there\’s a town event or a football game on the weekends. Plenty of families go to the beach on the weekends, which is about a 45 minute drive. Mini-vacations are more common because SeaWorld and Disney World are only a four-hour drive away, and the town is practically a ghost town in the summer. Lots of families spend the whole summer visiting relatives, and with the students gone the town gets sad and empty.
9. Can you explain the rosary walk a little better?
This is another one that I had to outsource. I\’ve never participated in it (that small children thing again), but a couple of times I\’ve slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a rosary-praying walker while I was driving too fast through the Piazza. But as I understand it, the rosary walk is an AMU thing. When the university moved to FL, somebody started a rosary walk, which was simply a bunch of students, faculty, staff, priests, etc, walking while praying the rosary. My neighbor thinks that it started because the space dedicated to a chapel on the temporary campus was so small that everyone literally wouldn\’t fit, and the weather is always nice enough for a walk. It\’s not a town thing, it\’s an AMU thing, and it has always been voluntary.
10. What are neighborhoods like? Would you say neighbors socialize differently than most American neighbors?
There are five neighborhoods right now (Emerson, Hampton, Bellera, Del Webb, and Middlebrook) and a sixth (Maple Ridge) being built. Each neighborhood has its own little flair, and social groups usually form according to neighborhoods, mostly because having your kids play together forces you to get to know each other. But a good portion of the residents own golf carts and drive between neighborhoods often. Socialization is definitely different. No one ever says hi to a new face without introducing themselves. We were totally overwhelmed at first by the barrage of new names and faces, and I almost crumbled under the pressure of not being able to go to the grocery store without meeting someone new or seeing someone I already knew.
It was really disorienting and kind of frightening at first, because we were so used to living in anonymity in Las Vegas, carefully feeling people out before making the commitment of a dinner invitation or a play date. That\’s not how it works here. Friendliness, neighborliness, is expected. We had barely been 10 months in Ave before our youngest son was born, and our neighbors, the vast majority of whom I had never met before, provided us with dinner for nearly three solid weeks. Keep in mind that this was our fourth child, and I can count on one hand the number of dinners people brought us after all of the other three were born. But that\’s what\’s expected here because that\’s the kind of example that\’s set, so you pony up and make dinner for someone you don\’t know. You don\’t have to become hard and fast friends, obviously, but this is a community of people who actively live together, not people who just happened to get smashed into the same geographical space. That forces you to become a better person, to move beyond yourself, whether you want to or not. (Full disclosure: mostly I did not.) Trying to recover the lost art of being a good neighbor feels kind of like learning a new language at first, but once you figure it out, you wonder how you ever lived any other way.
Thank you Calah, for sharing with us about your town and the way you live. I really enjoyed reading about it and I hope readers will also.