Postcard from Florida
Great news, high praise, and a lost opportunity at Ave Maria University


First the great news. On January 14, the last block of Carrara marble — from the same vein from which Michelangelo carved David — was lifted into place by huge cranes (cost: $300 per hour, over three weeks of herculean overtime work) onto the façade of the Oratory at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Only a little more often than once per century are high-relief marble sculptures hoisted onto the façades of large-scale cathedrals and oratories. The last such façade installed in the United States was Frederick Hart’s magnificent Ex Nihilo at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Ave Maria’s new marble — the archangel Gabriel announcing the forming of Jesus in embryo in Mary’s womb — now takes its place with Hart’s as one of the most arresting and beautiful in the New World. Its lines are as clear and simple as the lovely face of the 16-year-old Mary. Its quiet majesty induces awe. It forces onlookers to linger over that moment in history when God became Man, in the flesh of the Blessed Virgin.

Throughout the long centuries of Christian history, the Annunciation has been the most often carved and painted scene from the Bible. Everything else in Christian history follows from it. Here it is that God first takes flesh in man, by an act of humble obedience on Mary’s part. His time in Mary’s womb is proof that Jesus Christ is man, just as his love, miracles, death, and resurrection prove that he is God. Thus it is that whenever the Creed is recited at Mass, all heads are bowed at the line: “By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

Trumpets! Jubilation! That is the mood I felt on watching the last few large blocks of heavy marble being lifted into place on the gothic archway, as the light of the fading sunset reddened the pure white stone, and bystanders and workers cheered in relief after days and days of suspense. The total weight of the marble exceeds 60 tons. One mistake, one sagging line, and the whole project might have been ruined for a long time.

Thus does Ave Maria continue its strides toward becoming the center of sculpture, sacred music, painting, prints, and other arts in southwest Florida. Coming next: Verdi’s lovely Requiem, recently performed before Pope Benedict in Rome, will soon be performed by the Naples Opera Company at Ave Maria University’s new Golisano Field House (with far more seating than the Oratory).

Now for the high praise. It came from a recent issue of First Things reporting on Catholic higher education in America. This fresh survey ranked young Ave Maria as third among all Catholic schools in academic quality, behind only Notre Dame and Georgetown. More centrally than that, First Things ranked Ave Maria first in Catholic character and culture. On that count, Georgetown ranked among the last, and Notre Dame received a mixed review. First Things quoted one Ave Maria student who said (properly, in my observation) that some students there, upon entering, are not Catholic, or not very seriously so; but by the end of four years, virtually every student has become more religious.

Almost at the same time, in surveying all the colleges and universities of the United States that are found in rural environments, Newsweek placed Ave Maria 16th, in the company of such luminaries as Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams, St. Olaf, Colgate, Carleton, and Bucknell.