AVE MARIA — Every year since his sister Terri Schiavo died, Bobby Schindler and his family have held a small Catholic Mass at a parish church near their St. Petersburg-area home.
This March 31, Schindler wanted to give the event more of a national appeal, one befitting the cause his sister represented four years ago when the removal of her feeding tube and subsequent death interested everyone from St. Petersburg to Tallahassee, from Washington D.C. to the Vatican.
Schindler decided to approach Ave Maria and its founder Tom Monaghan.
The Collier County town and university will host “The National Mass for Terri’s Day” at its 100-foot, $24 million church, the Ave Maria Oratory, Tuesday afternoon.
“Ave Maria is well respected throughout the country,” said Schindler, who heads a pro-life foundation named for his sister. “It’s a prestigious university. Mr. Monaghan is a leader in the pro-life movement and has been very supportive of us. We are honored he would allow us to have our Mass at Ave Maria.”
The ceremony should bring honor to Ave Maria as well, experts said.
At its height four years ago, just under six in 10 Americans were following the Schiavo case closely, according to one poll.
Schiavo’s name still resounds, particularly in pro-life circles, said Ted G. Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who has written about the Schiavo case.
Tuesday’s Mass could attract national media coverage and help put Ave Maria “on the map,” Jelen said.
“This could be huge in establishing the identity of the town and university,” Jelen said.
Within the right-wing Catholic community, others involved with the Mass are already on the map as forceful and enterprising promoters of pro-life causes.
Monaghan earned his stripes at least 15 years before he started Ave Maria University, when as head of Domino’s Pizza he weathered a National Organization of Women boycott of his company started because of his stance on abortion.
The main celebrant of Tuesday’s Mass is the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of an $11 million New York nonprofit called Priests for Life that bills itself as “the largest Catholic organization exclusively dedicated to fighting abortion and euthanasia.”
Pavone became a spiritual advisor to the Schindler family during Terri Schiavo’s last days, spending the final night with her, Bobby Schindler and his sister Suzanne Vitadamo.
The priest also was an outspoken critic of Schiavo’s husband Michael who had requested the removal of Terri’s feeding tube contending it would have been her desire. Pavone repeatedly called Michael Schiavo a “murderer.”
Since the Terri Schiavo case, Pavone’s profile has grown. He was just as outspoken during the recent national election cycle and remains a frequent commentator on Catholic television.
“He’d be a good entrepreneur, if he wasn’t in religious life,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a moral theology professor at Boston College.
Pavone said Tuesday’s event represented not just a political cause or a call to action, but “a question of the clash of the culture of life and the culture of death.”
Ave Maria, Pavone said, stands for the same ideals he does.
“I think Ave Maria is going to increasingly be a significant center of pro-life activity, witness and outreach,” he said.
The university has long identified itself with Terri Schiavo’s cause. Four months after her death, the school established a scholarship in her name for its priestly discernment program.
Joe Grady, who runs a lay Catholic apostolate in western Pennsylvania, donated $10,000 to start the scholarship and has helped raise an additional $12,000 through annual dinners in Schiavo’s name. One of Grady’s sons graduated Ave Maria last year, and a second is a sophomore.
Grady called Schiavo “a martyr to end the culture of death,” and Ave Maria, he said, forms “holy priests who will defend life at every cost.”
University President Nick Healy said when Ave Maria was approached to celebrate a Mass to remember Schiavo, it was an easy decision.
“It’s very much in keeping with our values,” Healy said. “As you know, we follow the church’s teaching not just in opposition to abortion but also with respect to those who are in a so-called vegetative state. We think Priests for Life and the Terri Schiavo foundation are doing admirable things. We stand with them.”
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Ave Maria University is celebrating a national Mass on the fourth anniversary of Terri Schiavo’s death. The Mass is open to the public.
What: The National Mass for Terri’s Day.
When: 5:15 p.m., Tuesday, March 31.
Where: The Ave Maria Oratory, located at 5050 Ave Maria Boulevard, Ave Maria.
Who: Five members of the Schindler family, including Terri Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary. The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, will be the main celebrant at the Mass and the Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, is con-celebrating.
Why: The Mass is intended to celebrate Schiavo’s life and stimulate activity on a local level to support people and families in circumstances similar to Schiavo’s.
For more information: Visit the Web sites of Terri’s Foundation (http://www.terrisfight.org/), Priests for Life (www.priestsforlife.org) or Ave Maria University (http://www.avemaria.edu/) or call the university visitor’s center at (239) 280-2500.