Anthony Buono is convinced that bigger isn’t necessarily better. As founder of AveMariaSingles.com, he believes that being significantly smaller than other major Catholic singles sites is actually an asset: “Yes we’re the smallest,” he says, “but I argue that we’re probably the most refined because we’re able to do a lot in this very tight-knit community.”
Buono’s confidence reflects the certainty and clarity of purpose that are the hallmarks of Ave Maria. Founded in 1998, its mission is not to be the biggest or even the best site for Catholic singles, at least not in the sense of numbers, technological quality or web ranking. Instead, Ave Maria’s 8,510 members are interested in fulfilling their vocation to the married life by finding, as the site proclaims, other “Catholics who love the Church and believe 100% of what the Church teaches.”
The contrast between Ave Maria and either Catholic Singles or Catholic Match is striking. While those two sites work to create a sense of a faith community and are simple to join, Ave Maria members pay an upfront $99 fee, receive no free trial period, can’t search member profiles before joining and, other than a few pointers from priests and married members about courtship and the right way to pursue a relationship, don’t encounter anything about faith information.
On the site it says, “Since we are not interested in just helping people make new Catholic friends but rather in helping establish strong Catholic marriages and families to rebuild our culture, we feel that a free trial period is not appropriate to get members who are serious about getting into their vocation.”
Ave Maria’s members are bonded through their sense of vocation, or calling from God, to marriage. Chris Mora, who met his wife Filomena at Ave Maria, wrote that the site “made clear its mission of creating an environment where practicing Catholics could meet, converse and possibly meet with the express purpose of the potential for marriage.” (Chris and Filomena’s reflections, along with those of 24 other married couples who met at Ave Maria, were published in a book entitled, We Met Online!: Stories of Married Catholics Who Met Their Spouses on the Internet.)
This focus on marriage, and the courtship process that leads to it, is how Ave Maria attracts what Buono describes as “a specific clientele.” While other Catholic dating sites are courtship-friendly, they are still essentially sites for daters, that is, people who meet, hang out, perhaps have some sort of physical relationship, and decide along the way if they should think about getting married or not. Courtship is an entirely different matter. “This is not a place to seek pen pals or find a date for Saturday night because you have nothing else to do” says Patricia Wrona, a single Catholic who has been a member of Ave Maria for two and a half years. “[Ave Maria] holds itself out as being for people who are seriously seeking the vocation of marriage.” According to Wrona and others on Ave Maria, any prospective relationship must be “something that could go forward to the vocation of marriage.”
‘Fast forward to the vocation of marriage’ might be a more apt description. A significant number of the “success stories” featured on Ave Maria are from couples who have gotten engaged within only a few months of first contacting each other. Buono believes that this isn’t due simply to his members’ marriage-mindedness. Ave Maria members must write lengthy essays and answer questionnaires so that potential partners can get all the important questions out of the way and find a relationship that will work more quickly. “When you read these questionnaires, it may take you only a month of correspondences to really know the heart and soul of this person” says Buono. Even Ave Maria’s spartan design and lack of frills reflect the site’s marriage-or-bust mentality. Wrona adds, “There’s a seriousness about it that, I think, is appropriate given the vocation that we’re called to.”
This seriousness about marriage carries over into members’ intense devotion to Catholicism — all of Catholicism. “To use the term Catholic,” says Buono, “means you believe everything the Church teaches… and you live your life according to that belief.” This commitment to Catholic orthodoxy attracted the attention of Thomas S. Monaghan, founder and former C.E.O. of Domino’s Pizza.
The site was founded in 1998 as “Single Catholics Online”. In early 2000, the Ave Maria Foundation, started by Monaghan to support Catholic orthodox organizations, took over company, which changed its name to Ave Maria Singles and gained about 6,000 new members. When the Ave Maria Foundation shifted its focus to Ave Maria University, Ave Maria Singles retained its name, though it has now moved back to for-profit status.
Ave Maria’s emphasis on a serious commitment to cultural conservatism and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church makes a clear impression on its prospective members that they should oppose birth control, believe in the sanctity of marriage, and agree with all of the Church’s teachings. The site doesn’t have gatekeepers that prevent anyone from joining, but its advertisements, promotions, and even its name make clear the sort of clients they’re looking for, and those they’re not.
“If you’re curious or you’re not sure, or you’re just hanging out, then we’re not for you… I work very hard on that,” says Buono. “We’re actually interested in making sure [the wrong people] don’t join our site.”
There is a common purpose and cultural experience on Ave Maria that feels at times almost like a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood — combining a superficial homogeneity and a diversity of personality. “If you’re a serious Catholic, however you express that,” adds Patricia Wrona, “you’ll find people with a like regard on a site like Ave Maria.” Filomena Mora says, “I’ve met the man I truly feel God led me to.”
With this sort of specific focus, Buono is not really worried about other Catholic dating sites hurting his business. “I don’t even have time to think about competition,” he says. “It’s great that they exist — and if people are happy and things are working on the other sites that’s great. I also know there’s a place for us.”
[This story was originally published on July 24th, 2004 and was updated with additional research by Mike Hayes.]