From Foster Homes to the Board Room: Tom Monaghan’s Journey in Faith

Musings with Mother, Podcasts

Mother Assumpta: We’re so privileged to have Tom Monaghan with us today. You’ve been a friend over all these years, and you need no introduction. You’ve done more in a lifetime than a person should do. So tell us about your childhood. 

Tom Monaghan: My parents were poor. My dad died at the age of twenty-nine; I was four years old, and I had a younger brother. My mother went back to nursing school and put us in a foster home where there was no religion. Then she moved us to a Catholic orphanage run by Felician Sisters. I was there from the age of six to twelve and then finally got out of the orphanage and moved to Traverse City. I ended up living in the Foster Farms, which I loved farm work, except the tenth grade when I went to the seminary.

Tom Monaghan with his teacher!

Well, I owe my faith to a Sister in a habit. She was not only my mother and my father, but she was my teacher.  From the time I was in the second grade I wanted to be a priest. They were very holy women.

We had Benediction and Mass every day. We did the Litany of the Saints every day and long morning and evening prayers. Everywhere in that huge mansion were statues and pictures of saints. We were surrounded by it. We had to clean it every day. On Saturday mornings we had the whole school scrubbing the floors with wax paper, and I had the honor of doing the chapel. I felt a presence in that chapel every day of the week and all morning Saturday before the Blessed Sacrament. I thought years later that certainly helped me in my faith.  

When I was twenty-three years old, I was still a freshman in college and on my own financially. I wanted to be an architect. I finally got into a school where the tuition wasn’t very high. I transferred to [University of] Michigan after one quarter, but I didn’t have the money so I spent three years in the Marine Corps, and then when I got out I went back to Michigan.

One day my brother, a mailman, found on his route a pizza place called Dominic’s in Ann Arbor, and Dominic’s had a place in Ypsilanti that was closed up. It was a total failure, just a hole in the wall. He tried to talk my brother into buying it. He asked me if I would go in with him. It was $500 down, which we borrowed because we didn’t have any money. My brother got cold feet after we signed the papers, so I was stuck having to run it myself. I had no idea what I was doing, but I could see the potential. I was the first one to focus on delivery. There were no pizza places anywhere in the country that delivered except single unit “ma and pa’s”, and I was the first one to figure it out as a multi-unit basis. 

The best way to be successful is to be a good Catholic. You treat people properly, your employees, your customers, your suppliers. I tried to do that. I had a big debate with myself before I opened the doors whether I’d be open on Sunday or not. I talked to a lot of priests. That was a tough decision because that was our biggest day – they didn’t serve meals in the dorms on Sunday, so we found a justification for doing that.

Tom Monaghan and Mother Assumpta discussing possibilities of beginning the new community in Ann Arbor, MI

Mother Assumpta: There is absolutely no way we would ever be able to repay you for what you do for us. We would not be where we are without you. You have done so many things for the Church. Tell us about Legatus. 

Tom Monaghan: I feel Young Presidents Organization [Y.P.O.] is probably the most effective organization I’ve ever belonged to as far as helping me in the business because you’re dealing with all C.E.O.s, so you can share things and they understand it whereas other employees wouldn’t and that was very helpful. Now, I was speaking at their International Convention in Venice and that was my last year. Cardinal Szoka knew I was going there, and he asked me if I wanted to attend Mass in the Pope’s private chapel. I did and received communion for him, and I’ll never forget him putting the host on my tongue and his eyes met mine, and I’m looking at those blue eyes. Later on, I’m leaving the Vatican, and it occurred to me there ought to be an organization like Y.P.O. for Catholics. As soon as I got that idea, I knew I had to do it. I knew I could do it, and I would do it, and that’s 1987. 

Mother Assumpta: You have it super organized. I’ve been privileged to go around, and it’s always the same. It’s wonderful. Did Cardinal O’Connor have anything to do with it? 

Tom Monaghan:  Yes, when I was in New York, I would stay at his residence, have breakfast with him after Mass, and he told people “I’ll do anything for that man;” I don’t know why I deserved so much of his friendship. It probably started when I hosted a group of C.E.O.s at his residence for me to explain Legatus to them. He took me to another room, and he said, “You’re going to have problems.” I said, “Your Eminence, you haven’t read my book. I don’t give up. I will make this work.” I lost a lot more sleep over Legatus than I ever did over Domino’s. I had a lot of problems, so he was right.

Mother Assumpta: But you persevered. One of the things that we know is high on your radar was the Ave Maria Law School and Ave Maria University. When you have an inspiration, you go for it. Tell us about that.

Tom Monaghan: I was on the board of Franciscan for twelve years, and I was their biggest benefactor. I wanted to do a lot more, but for some reason they had him step down. I realized as a board member, we don’t make all the important decisions, particularly with who the president is, so somewhere in there I said with all these schools controlled by Religious Orders, I think we need a school that’s controlled by the Board, and we have to make sure we get strong Catholic Board members. That’s how we set up Ave Maria. Then the law school was to be a part of it, in fact, the flagship, and that idea started back when I was at Steubenville. Charlie Rice was on the Board, and he wanted Franciscan to start a law school. It was a time that I didn’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t help a lot, so they ended up not doing it, but I was very disappointed. I started the law school because it’s the most influential profession there is next to the priesthood or the Religious and because the lawyers run our country. All our judges are lawyers. Most of our politicians are lawyers. A lot of our corporate leaders are lawyers. There’s a lawyer in every Boardroom and every meeting in the country. They are very influential.

We have outstanding football and basketball and then we have fifteen sports. I believe that builds character. If you have the right coaches, they can have as big an impact on the spiritual life of the player as the faculty do. 

Mother Assumpta: The Ave Maria Foundation has also supported so many things including the Thomas More Law Center and Ave Maria radio. When we first came here, you had a good newspaper too.  I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.  

It’s wonderful what’s happened. We’re one of the beneficiaries of the good things you’ve done. God has blessed us through you. 

Tom Monaghan and Mother Assumpta making plans to bring the Sisters to Michigan

Tom Monaghan: I started these little grade schools here. the idea was to have two grades in a classroom and have small schools. We ended up with four Spiritus Sanctus schools, but I needed somebody to run them. I heard that you were going to start a new Religious Order, so I immediately got ahold of you and flew out to New York where you were staying, and the rest is history.

Mother Assumpta: We have two beautiful schools that are there to your credit because you gave us a boost at the start, and not only do I thank you for that, but I thank you for all the things you’ve done for the Church. You’re such an example of a Catholic businessman, a Catholic family man. We’re so grateful.

I think in our culture, to see somebody willing to stand up for what’s true, what’s right, what’s beautiful, and you’re an example for that, Tom. Our Sisters love you, and we are so grateful and you’re in our prayers. I say that, and there are thousands of other people that feel the same way that are grateful. Only history will prove through these organizations, Legatus, the law school, and university. We’re all on a journey to get to Heaven, and you’re an example to us to keep fighting. You’re a man of determination. Your faith is number one, kind of like my Dad. It’s faith and family, in that order.

We really appreciate this interview. We’re so blessed with the Catholic Faith and you’re a beautiful example of what it means to stick to it, “come hell or high water, I’m going to be a Catholic in this culture. 

God bless you, Tom, and thanks a million for being here.