Although few people in Britain will know the name of Tom Monaghan, there are fewer still who will not know the name of Domino’s Pizza, the global restaurant chain which he founded. And yet the story of Tom Monaghan’s life and faith is astonishing, almost beggaring belief.
He was born on March 25, 1937, the feast of the Annunciation, and his is a rags-to-riches story, the very stuff of which the American Dream is made. Raised in Michigan, in America’s Midwest, not far from Detroit, Monaghan lost his beloved father as a child and was then abandoned by his mother. Having spent his childhood in an orphanage and later in a succession of largely loveless foster homes, he was forced to abandon his hope of a college education because of his inability to meet the cost. Seeking a desperate escape from his dead-end life, he joined the Marines, lapsing for a while from the practice of the Catholic faith which had been instilled in him by the nuns who ran the orphanage.
Upon leaving the Marines, he lost all the money he had painstakingly saved by investing it with a conman in a bogus business deal. Penniless, he hitch-hiked across the United States from California to Michigan, a distance of more than 2,000 miles, roughly equivalent to that between London and Ankara in Turkey.
In 1960, still only 23 and following his entrepreneurial instincts, Monaghan bought a local pizza restaurant. He met his wife in 1961, while delivering pizza on a college campus, and they were married the following year, being later blessed with four daughters.
Although Domino’s Pizza would have its setbacks and near disasters – it was brought back from the brink of bankruptcy more than once – it would eventually become the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the world, blazing a trail for the burgeoning pizza delivery business and capturing at one point more than half of all pizzas delivered in the US. By the mid-1980s, Domino’s was the seventh-largest restaurant chain in the world and the largest privately owned one.
For the former neglected child and penurious youth, these were heady days. He had more money than he could ever have imagined and succumbed to a habit of reckless spending. “I started to relax a little too much financially,” he would later confess. “I realised I could afford virtually anything I wanted and I got carried away.”
The tendency to splash out would reach almost obscene levels. In 1985, Domino’s Farms, a monumental office park covering almost a million square feet and costing $130 million, was unveiled as Domino’s corporate headquarters. It boasted the largest copper roof in the world and was also the world’s longest office building, stretching more than 3,000 feet from one end to the other.
Monaghan also bought a large chunk of Drummond Island in Northern Lake Huron and built a luxurious lodge and golf course there. He assembled a collection of 244 classic cars, including a Bugatti Royale for which he paid more than $8 million. As if this were not enough, he also bought a fleet of planes and helicopters, and several yachts.
The icing on the cake was his purchase of the Detroit Tigers, the Major League baseball team that Tom had idolised as a child. Listening to radio commentaries of the games as a child at the orphanage, he could not have guessed that he would one day own the Tigers, which he bought in 1983. The club won the World Series the following season. In British terms, the analogy would be that of a child growing up to own the Premier League team he had always supported and then, in the following season, the team going on to win the Champions League.
There is, in worldly terms, something so fantastical about Tom Monaghan’s story that it’s tempting to see it as resembling a fairy tale. From a Christian perspective, however, the best was yet to come.
At the peak of his success, and his spending, he picked up a copy of Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. As he read the section about the sin of pride, he was cut to the quick, realising in a moment of revelation that his ostentatious lifestyle, characterised by largesse and larger-than-life extravagances, was itself a manifestation of his pride.
He had long since returned to the practice of his faith, having lapsed only briefly in the Marines, and had always considered himself to be a good, Mass-going Catholic. Now, however, he realised that he was failing to practise what he preached and neglecting to live a life in keeping with his beliefs.
In what can only be described as a “born again” moment, he decided that he needed radically to alter his priorities and change the way that he lived. With Franciscan recklessness, he resolved to die poor, giving away his fortune in order to build up the Church.
In 1991, Monaghan agreed to finance the building of a new cathedral in the Nicaraguan capital Managua to replace the one that effectively had been destroyed in an earthquake almost 20 years earlier. The final construction costs were $4.5 million, of which Tom paid $3.5 million.
He founded Legatus, an organisation of Catholic CEOs, which has grown exponentially. By 2015 Legatus had more than 2,500 members in 80 chapters across the United States, representing a mobilised army of successful Catholic business leaders resolved to build on the faith.
He founded the Catholic Ave Maria University and the Ave Maria School of Law, in Florida, both of which continue to prosper. He also established Ave Maria Radio, another success story. By the end of 2015, Ave Maria Radio’s prime-time offerings were being broadcast in more than 360 markets throughout the United States.
This explosion in Catholic radio is nothing short of a media revolution, for which Monaghan deserves a place of honour as a pioneer, second only to Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN, whom Monaghan helped with a possibly mission-saving donation in the early days of her television apostolate. “I believe Mother Angelica has brought more people into the Church and back to the Church than any one person in history,” Monaghan says.
Hyperbole aside, a place of honour must be reserved for Tom Monaghan himself. Few have done more to revitalise the Catholic Church in our time than this once profligate entrepreneur. It’s a fairy tale far more magical than a mere rags-to-riches story in which the orphan gets to go to the ball; it’s a miracle play in which the camel gets to pass through the eye of a needle.
One might hope indeed that, when his time in this vale of tears is ended, he may truly live happily ever after.
Joseph Pearce is the author of Monaghan: A Life (Tan Books)