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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On the sprawling suburban campus of Domino's Pizza Inc., a controversial experiment in philanthropy is taking place.

A Catholic church is being built next door to the pizza company's headquarters building. A Catholic grade school is under construction down the road. In a meadow nearby, there's a new convent where a dozen nuns live.

This is the universe of Thomas S. Monaghan, one of the country's wealthiest Catholic philanthropists. Two years ago, he sold Domino's, the company he founded, for about $1 billion. Now he's spending much of that fortune to create a conservative brand of Catholicism that looks, in many ways, like the church did 30 years ago.

In Mr. Monaghan's world, the faithful attend Mass regularly, pray the rosary and follow the pope's rules to the letter. He has "a deep-seated belief that culture is wobbling out of control, and a profound hatred of the forces that are not in conformity with his beliefs," says his friend William Burleigh, chairman and chief executive of E.W. Scripps Co., the Cincinnati-based media concern. "That leads him to his grand vision."

In and around Ann Arbor, Mr. Monaghan is funding and launching dozens of Catholic nonprofits that reflect his old-fashioned views. Last month, he bought a fraternity house at the University of Michigan, which he plans to convert into a Catholic dorm for women, with crucifixes on the walls and restrictions on male visitors. Preferring that Catholic grade schools be run by nuns, Mr. Monaghan started a chain of schools called Spiritus Sanctus Academies, and then imported an order of nuns from Tennessee to run them. The sisters live in the convent behind the pizza company. From his small office at Domino's, lined with glass statues of the Virgin Mary, Mr. Monaghan says that at 63, he's "doing all I ever dreamed of doing."

A World Apart

An entrepreneur at heart, Mr. Monaghan is building this Catholic world apart from existing church institutions, and this rankles many in the Catholic mainstream. He doesn't contribute to many existing Catholic charities, preferring instead to create his own. And, for the most part, he doesn't improve existing Catholic schools, opting to build new ones. Around Ann Arbor, priests resent Mr. Monaghan for not supporting his local diocese, in Lansing, Mich., more. "We feel like we don't matter," says the Rev. Charles Irvin, pastor of St. Mary's parish in Manchester, Mich. Mr. Monaghan responds: "Maybe it's cockiness, but I think I can do it better."

Since the mid-1990s, Mr. Monaghan has started a Catholic law school, newspaper, online bookstore and law practice. He bought a Catholic radio station and an Internet dating service for single Catholics. Most of these projects are incorporated independently, but they get their funding either from Mr. Monaghan himself or from the private, $260 million Ave Maria Foundation, which he created when he sold Domino's. Mr. Monaghan still owns a 7% stake in Domino's -- as well as the Domino's headquarters building and the 300 acres around it.

Erosion of Identity

Mr. Monaghan is part of a powerful and growing group of Catholics whose orthodoxy leaves them divided between submitting to the church's authority on all matters and yearning for many of the trappings lost after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Among the watershed reforms made at that time, the church did away with formalities such as the Latin Mass and habits for nuns and began to take a more accepting view of other religions. Orthodox Catholics say these reforms opened the door to dissent and confusion, resulting in a widespread erosion of Catholic identity. Part of the solution, for them, is a return to tradition. Many prefer to kneel while taking Communion. Some advocate a resumption of the Latin Mass. Mr. Monaghan, in particular, believes that Catholic teachers should return to talking about hell and the devil to help people distinguish right from wrong. Most of these Catholics say they follow the rules forbidding birth control and sex outside heterosexual marriage, and so reject a great many reformers who take a more relaxed view of these proscriptions. In Ann Arbor, Mr. Monaghan's vision has many fans. Martha Theisen has two children in one of the Spiritus Sanctus schools. "They've gone back to my mom's era in terms of being proud of what the Catholic Church teaches," she says.

But the business side of Mr. Monaghan's dream is struggling. The grade schools are full, but they are years from breaking even. At the new Ave Maria School of Law, about 80% of the incoming class will be on some kind of financial assistance. One project with which Mr. Monaghan has been closely affiliated, Catholic Family Radio, has already failed. Launched last summer with front-page headlines, this network of nine Catholic radio stations is being sold for lack of advertising dollars. "I don't expect everything he's doing to work," says the Rev. Michael Scanlan, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and a friend. "He's taken on too much for what you'd consider a normal person." "I worry about that, too," says Mr. Monaghan. "I have to find where the priorities are."

Tall, thin and boyishly awkward, Mr. Monaghan has shown that his defining trait is single-mindedness. When he got interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, he became one of the country's biggest collectors of Wright drawings and furniture. A fitness fanatic, he accounts every morning for the calories he consumed the previous day. At the same time, he examines his conscience for lapses in piety, such as impatience or egomania. Then he goes to Mass. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he fasts on bread and water. "There may be people more disciplined than Tom, but I don't know any," says Paul Roney, executive director of the Ave Maria Foundation.

Raised by Nuns

Mr. Monaghan's father died when Thomas was four. Two years later, his mother, unable to care for her two boys, put them into a Catholic orphanage near Ann Arbor. They were, in essence, raised by nuns. From a young age, his life was saturated with ritual: memorization of the catechism, daily prayer, endless kneeling, the Latin Mass. In his office, he keeps a copy of the Latin-English prayer book he used as a child, which he shows off with the enthusiasm another man might reserve for his boyhood baseball mitt. He was an altar boy, and at one point wanted to be a priest.

Like many Catholics, Mr. Monaghan drifted away from the church as a young man. He joined the Marines and, in 1960, he and his brother bought a storefront pizza shop called Dominick's. In 1962, he married Marjorie Zybach, a Lutheran, with whom he now has four daughters. Slowly he drifted back to the church. He didn't begin attending daily Mass again until 1973, when he heard that Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula did so: "I figured, as busy as he was, if he could go to Mass every day, so could I."

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Monaghan had built Domino's into a $1 billion company, and his tastes had grown richer, too. A collector of classic cars, he bought an $8 million Bugatti. A baseball fan, he bought the Detroit Tigers. The floor of his Domino's office was covered in leather tile; the ceiling, in silk. He also had become one of the country's most visible -- and controversial -- Catholics. A $50,000 gift to an antiabortion group in 1988 led to a nationwide boycott of Domino's.

In 1987, inspired by the camaraderie he experienced as a member of the Young Presidents' Organization and certain that Catholic businesspeople needed a platform for exploring their spiritual lives, Mr. Monaghan started Legatus, his association of wealthy Catholic executives. Members, who pay about $2,000 a year in dues, meet regularly for Mass and dinner, and to hear religious speakers.

During the 1980s, he also befriended important bishops and cardinals. He met Cardinal John O'Connor at a gathering in New York and was charmed when the cardinal, who died earlier this year, jokingly took the red cap off his own head and put it on Mr. Monaghan's. Mr. Monaghan had the cap mounted and put it in his office. He befriended Cardinal Edmund Szoka, archbishop of Detroit throughout the 1980s, who helped orchestrate the pope's 1987 visit to Motor City. Mr. Monaghan paid to build the chair the pope sat on when he celebrated Mass in the Silverdome. He has the chair in storage, he says, and doesn't let anyone sit on it.

'Favorite Son' in Rome

In 1990, Cardinal Szoka was called to the Vatican to help sort out its finances, and Mr. Monaghan gave his friend a six-figure gift to improve a computer system there. In the past three years, he has given more than $1 million to the Vatican -- and 10% of the dues Legatus collects annually go directly to the pope. In Rome, Mr. Monaghan is treated like a "favorite son," says Mr. Burleigh. Mr. Monaghan has taken Communion from the Holy Father, and last year, his daughter Maggie had the rare privilege of being married in St. Peter's Basilica, with Cardinal Szoka presiding. But as his national profile grew throughout the 1980s, his relations with the local diocese began to crumble. Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing at the time traces the chill to an early Legatus meeting. Mr. Monaghan had invited as a speaker the Catholic intellectual and free-market advocate Michael Novak. The bishop, who is retired, says he wanted to present a more progressive point of view -- from, say, Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Mr. Monaghan refused, the bishop says bitterly: "He's on the side of the big shots and the industrialists."

Although he doesn't remember nixing Archbishop Weakland, Mr. Monaghan says he "certainly would have," and he calls the archbishop a "liberal."

Then there was the matter of the cathedral in Nicaragua. Mr. Monaghan in the early 1990s gave $2.5 million to build a massive cathedral in Managua, and the project raised the ire of many Ann Arbor-area priests. In the wake of Nicaragua's civil war, they felt that Mr. Monaghan should spend his money on homelessness or poverty. Even his own parish priest, the Rev. Roger Prokop, says he took Mr. Monaghan aside to tell him "there ought to be some sort of social aspect to it."

Mr. Monaghan parries the criticism. "I felt it was a very important thing symbolically to build that cathedral. Nicaragua was the toehold for communists to take over all of Latin America." He also says that he does help the poor, pointing out that poor children go to his schools. As for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, "there are a lot of people doing that sort of thing," he says. "There's no one doing the spiritual, morality kinds of things. There's more of a need there."

The Sin of Pride

By the early 1990s, Mr. Monaghan was in spiritual and financial straits. He wanted to devote himself to philanthropy, but sales at Domino's were slipping, and he couldn't sell the company. He had read C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," a popular treatise on faith, and had decided that he suffered from the sin of pride. So he unloaded many of his toys: the Bugatti, the Tigers, most of the Wright collection. "He was always in conflict with himself," says Sara-Ann Briggs, who guided his Frank Lloyd Wright purchases. "He'd buy all this stuff and then feel bad about it." Now, at the center of Mr. Monaghan's universe are the Spiritus Sanctus schools, three small, white buildings that look like something out of Norman Rockwell. Girls wear plaid pinafores and saddle shoes, and boys wear navy trousers and white shirts. Everyone goes to Mass every morning, and parents come around often, to cook lunch or take Bible study from one of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, who run the schools.

Mr. Monaghan started these schools out of frustration with what he sees as the lack of rigorous religious education at Catholic schools today. There's nothing wrong with most Catholic schools, he says, "except they're not Catholic."

On a drizzly day last month, some kindergarteners were tending grape vines they had planted outside -- a gift from Mr. Monaghan. At a prompt from their teacher, they recited a verse they had learned from the Bible. "I am the vine," they chanted, "you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing."

The schools had a bumpy beginning. Early on, Mr. Monaghan hired Naomi Corera, who is a lay teacher, to be principal of the first one. But eventually, she says, Mr. Monaghan expressed his dissatisfaction: His dream was a school run by nuns. Would she consider taking vows? He had even imagined the "deep burgundy" of her habit, she says. "I said, 'No, you don't just turn around and be a nun,' " she says. Mr. Monaghan says his suggestion to Ms. Corera to become a nun was "partly tongue in cheek."

'A Conciliating Spirit'

Meanwhile, formal relations with the local diocese have improved. Bishop Povish retired in 1995, and the new bishop, Carl Mengeling, takes a more accepting view of Mr. Monaghan's work. So while Mr. Monaghan still operates more or less outside the local church hierarchy, the bishop has given his approval to many of Mr. Monaghan's projects. And Mr. Monaghan says he would never defy the bishop's wishes. In a gesture of good will, Mr. Monaghan last year gave the diocese a $4 million piece of land on which to build a new high school. He's "more of a conciliating spirit," says his priest, Father Prokop. He was "much more confrontational before."

The building continues apace. Next door to Domino's, Mr. Monaghan has given about $2.5 million in property and cash to Christ the King, a local Catholic charismatic congregation, so it can build a church. Unlike mainstream Catholics, charismatics worship in an ecstatic way, sometimes speaking in tongues or falling to the floor when they believe they have been touched by the Holy Spirit. Not a charismatic himself, Mr. Monaghan supports this congregation for its passionate commitment to faith. Despite his ascetic leanings, Mr. Monaghan has retained some extravagant hobbies. He recently finished building a skating rink on the private compound near Domino's where he lives with his wife and two of his daughters. And then there's the "Tar Paper Shack," a hideaway he built several years ago in the woods behind Domino's. A replica of an old hermit's cabin from the 1940s, the shack is furnished with bunk beds and ancient appliances, its pantry decoratively stocked with decades-old canned goods. Attached to the shack is a banquet room, with a long metal-topped table and mismatched chairs. Mr. Monaghan entertains there, serving multicourse gourmet meals on tin plates.

Mr. Monaghan hasn't given up on politics, either. His new law school has a strong antiabortion stance, with many of the country's most visible pro-life activists -- as well as Rep. Henry Hyde, of Illinois, and the failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork -- on its board or faculty.

His Thomas More Center for Law & Justice, which he founded last year, is a four-lawyer practice located down the hall from Mr. Monaghan's office and devoted to protecting "the sanctity of life, family values and religious freedom," says its director, Richard Thompson. Last month, a lawyer from the Thomas More Center flew to Kanawha County, W.Va., to encourage the school board there to adopt a textbook that presents an alternative to Darwinism.

Ave Maria employees say Mr. Monaghan would expand his Catholic empire as fast as they'd let him, and in his office, talking about the future, Mr. Monaghan is as enthusiastic as a child with a new toy. He wants to increase Legatus membership 30% this year. He dreams of building Catholic hospice facilities, Catholic nursing homes and retirement homes for priests.

And he's thinking about making a franchise business out of the Catholic dorms, like the one at the University of Michigan. "You could do several hundred of those overnight," he says.

Write to Lisa Miller at lisa.miller@wsj.com

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