For those of us who are newer to Ave Maria, it is hard to imagine the town without Maple Ridge, Publix, or the Oratory, but the Dix family knows the town before those things quite well. When they moved to Ave in 2007, the Oratory was just a skeleton of what it is now and the vast majority of the current residential areas were inhabited by wildlife alone.
The patriarch of the Dix family, Daniel, was present for the groundbreaking procession as a couple hundred folks walked in prayer through the tomato fields and Ave Maria became a town. Daniel and Monica were also the first to sign a commitment to open a business in Ave Maria — that business was The Bean of Ave Maria.
Standing outside of Sunday Mass, Monica Dix, wife and mother of five, shares that their offertory envelope is number 27 — those envelopes were handed out to residents star ting with number one — another fact proving their status as one of the original families in Ave.
When they moved to Ave, they were a family of five, with the youngest two girls not having been born yet. Now, they are a family of seven with one dog, Bob Lee Swagger . The Dix girls are: Isabella Ray, “Bella,” 13; Gianna Carolina, “Gigi,” 10; Josephina Maria, “Josie,” 9; Gabriella Lucia, “Gabby,” 5; and Rosa Emiliana, 2. Daniel and Monica had very specific plans for their girls’ names. Firstly, all of their names have Italian roots, and most also honor a family member or patron saint. But secondly, Monica said, “we wanted to be sure their names could work if they wanted to be diplomats or rock stars.”
While unsure if the future has either of those two careers in store for any of the girls, their current interests are certainly varied, including track and field, martial arts, reading, sailing, fencing, book-writing, video game playing, and coding, to name a few.
While their schedules haven’t always been full with the multitude of activities they are now, Daniel and Monica are no strangers to long days and packed schedules. The two met while Monica was studying ceramics and sculpture at Carnegie Mellon University and Daniel was finishing up his degree in art history while working as an art conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA. They fell in love and Daniel proposed while on a seven-week bike trip together in Europe.
Monica, who was a cradle Catholic, although not practicing her faith at the time, wanted to get married in the Catholic Church. This was a bit of a problem for Daniel, who was a practicing Christian, but had no real allegiance to any particular denomination at the time. His problem came with the vow to raise his future children in the Catholic faith. Daniel took this vow very seriously. After discussing it with his own family and because it was something that Monica felt strongly about, the two were married in the Catholic Church.
Before they got married though,shortly after their engagement, Daniel left Pittsburgh to put his journalism degree to use by taking a job in management at a daily newspaper in his hometown of Wooster , OH. Monica wasn’t thrilled about the idea of moving to Wooster, so she stayed in Pennsylvania believing it might be easier to find work somewhere she was already comfortable.
It didn’t take her long to realize that she needed to be where Daniel was, “I was like, ‘what am I doing? I’m ruining this relationship I’m supposed to be in’ — Daniel proposed! This isn’t just dating anymore’ — I had made a commitment to Dan. And ultimately,
I missed him — that was really the biggest part. So I moved to be with him,” Monica said.
While she was happy to be with Daniel again, she struggled to find work. They would often talk about starting a business that they could do together and Monica was interested in the nascent coffeehouse industry. As fate would have it, while Daniel’s parents were on their yearly vacation to Sanibel Island that year, they had noticed that a coffeehouse called The Bean had gone up for sale. Monica said, jokingly, “let’s buy it.” Next thing she knew, Daniel had obtained the financing to purchase the business and they were looking for the least expensive house available on the island. They quickly sold their house in Ohio and moved to Sanibel sight unseen.
After a year of working and learning, Daniel and Monica expanded the business and The Bean of Sanibel Island became a smash hit. It had a cool island vibe, great staff, and the Dixes were always there forming relationships with their customers and working alongside their staff. They had no problem pulling in revenue; they could make their rent payments from souvenir sales alone. They sold t-shirts, mugs, and popular bumper stickers that said “I heart the Bean.” They asked their customers to take photos of themselves with their Bean bumper stickers and to send them the photos to hang on the shop wall. Their customers did not disappoint — the walls were full of photos.
Due to their success, they decided to open not just one, but three more coffeehouses — two in the new Fort Myers airport and one in Cape Coral — all of which were
wildly successful not only in providing a good caffeine fix, but in offering a place for people to come together.
During this time, they also decided they were ready to try for a baby, something Monica wasn’t so sure about in the earlier years of their marriage. After Monica became pregnant, Daniel started feeling like he needed to learn more about Catholicism. That oath from his wedding day was hanging over his head now that he had a child on the way. He went to the local priest on Sanibel Island and began to ask some questions about the issues that are typically the most difficult for people to accept about the faith: “What about all this Mary stuff… and praying to the Saints, what’s that all about? What’s the problem with contraception and what about homosexuality?” The priest asked Daniel two questions: “Daniel, do you believe that you have to learn about something before you discredit it?” Daniel said, “yes.” The priest then asked, “do you believe in God and that you should pray when you need guidance?” Daniel said, “yes, I do.” So the priest said, “if you do those two things, learn about the faith and pray, the Church demands that you follow your conscience.” This was something he could accept; no pressure — learn, pray, and decide for himself.
Just as he began to take steps toward learning about Catholicism, Monica miscarried their first child and Daniel stopped pursuing Catholicism for awhile. Within another year and a half, Monica miscarried their second child. During her second pregnancy, the local priest had started a program of one-on-one instruction and Daniel became engrossed with the early church fathers, St. Augustine, the encyclicals of John Paul II, and other church teachings. These interests became part of the
foundation that would guide him to get his master’s degree in theology.
While the miscarriages were devastating, they didn’t give up. Monica became pregnant with Bella very shortly after her second miscarriage. Daniel, who was really “seeking” at that time with an open heart and mind, began to experience his conversion and Monica experienced a reversion back to the faith. She said, “there’s something about becoming a parent that really makes you want to improve yourself and be the best example you can be for your children. Even when they are very small and they don’t understand, you know that they will one day, so you had better start becoming a better human being now.”
While visiting Monica’s sister in Steubenville, Ohio, Daniel happened upon a brochure for Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology (IPT) program. While there, they also attended a charismatic Mass at Franciscan University, which was unlike the Catholic Masses they were accustomed to. It seemed serendipitous that he would go to this Mass and find a brochure for the IPT program that was located in Naples, not far from where they were already living; he felt called to join, and so he started the three-year journey. The IPT was demanding, required constant study, and a lot of hard work, so while this period of their lives was extremely busy, the young couple still always found the time to develop spiritually, to spend time with their family, and for Daniel to pursue his theology degree.
When he started the IPT program, Daniel said, “we had one coffeehouse and one child. When I finished the program, we had four coffeehouses and Monica was pregnant with our third child.” Monica said, “we just kept saying yes to God.” They were open to new opportunities and things just kept developing.
Owning coffeehouses had become their way of life, not just because it paid their bills, but because they enjoyed it. So when they moved to Ave with a four – and two-year old, and a six-week old, opening the Bean made sense. When they opened The Bean of Ave Maria, they decided to cash out on their other coffeehouses, and the new Bean became a second home to them and their children. Bella, Gigi and Josie could often be found helping behind the counter and around the coffeehouse.
Some years after opening the Bean of Ave Mar ia, the developers of the town approached them about opening a restaurant in La Piazza. Another investment in the struggling town of Ave Maria was a scary proposition but, Daniel said, “more than anything we wanted the town to grow and survive. We have always been fullyinvested in this town.” The developers suggested an Italian restaurant, but the Dixes understood their market and envisioned another idea: a bar. Not just any bar, but a pub. They had no interest in owning a typical American bar, but a pub was a different entity all together. Their vision was not a place to sit around and drink, but rather another social gathering spot similar to the spirit of The Bean; a place for community to gather and strengthen their relationships. The Queen Mary Pub and Grille opened its doors on September 11, 2009. Much like the Bean, the townspeople embraced this new business with open arms.
Due to the struggling economy, Daniel started getting a bit desperate to support his family. He needed to take on additional work to pay the bills. Ave Maria was having a bit of a problem with bears making their way into La Piazza at night to sniff out the garbage and the town really needed someone to collect the garbage at night to help prevent this problem. Daniel needed more work that would fit into his already busy schedule, so he took a job driving a golf cart around at night to collect the trash. He recalls local fr ends and patrons, like Tom DiFlorio, calling him up to ask if they could come along and collect garbage just to give him a hand and hang out for a bit. He would also often take his daughters with him. When Bella tells me about her experience collecting garbage with her dad, her face lights up! Who would think that a teenage girl would have such fond memories of collecting garbage? But, then again, it’s not really about the garbage. It’s remembering the community’s love for her father, the appreciation for his hard work, and the special time spent bonding with her.
At this time, Monica also worked at the Montessori school and cooked meals for a family in town as a private chef. Monica’s experience in becoming a mom had also led her to become a Bradley Method instructor. The objective of the Bradley Method is to help women through a pregnancy with the least amount of interventions. “It was really cool too that my mother -in-law did the classes with us, and then she went off and took training to become a Doula. She was there for Bella’s and Gigi’s births,”Monica said.
And speaking of family members being present at births, Bella’s was at Rosa’s birth, which was a special moment for the family. She had expressed interest in being there from the beginning of Monica’s pregnancy and though Monica was worried that it would be a long labor and Bella might get bored, Rosa didn’t take too long to come out and Bella got to be there for the whole thing.
So, even though they were tired and struggling financially, they were very appreciative to be a part of this great community; a community that was always willing to help when there was a need, even if it was just through the power of prayer. It was neighbor helping neighbor, truly caring for one another. And the Dix family was well-accustomed to their neighbors’ generosity. Daniel said, at one time, there was a regular Queen Mary patron who asked him how much it cost to send his children to Ave Maria Grammar and Preparatory School, now Rhodora J. Donahue Academy. After that conversation, Daniel would periodically receive a check in the mail for exactly that cost. One of the local priests who lived near them in La Piazza would often put money in an envelope and leave it at their doorstep. “You have to understand,”Daniel explains, “there s a bond in this community unlike anything that I have ever seen before. People care about each other in a way that is hard to put into words.”
Looking back, Daniel said he remembers many a time in the early days of the Bean that people from the community would come to ask if they could buy some milk or eggs. He said they were a bit of a convenience store considering there was nothing else around for several miles. Although they felt the business was a success, because it was something the community really desired, it was a financially difficult time for the country. “Practically everyone in town was a customer,” Monica remembers, “but after the housing collapse, there just weren’t that many of us.”
Eventually, the town star ted to grow and the financial situation of the Bean and Queen Mary Pub began looking up. By 2014, both businesses were doing quite well but Monica and Daniel were ready for a change. Monica was pregnant with Rosa at the time, and Daniel was looking at other career options that didn’t require rising before the sun and going to sleep early into the next morning. They sold both businesses.
When Daniel was interviewed by the Ave Herald after selling the businesses, he said, “The early years, though hard financially, will always be fondly remembered by
my family. The faithful pioneers of those days were a truly remarkable group of people. I feel very fortunate to have had a small part in the birth of this amazing place. I have made some of the best friends of my life in that coffeehouse and in that pub.” Their cur rent lifestyle allows them more time as a family. One of the activities they enjoy is running races together. Monica said that when Bella started running Track & Field in the fourth grade, it made her want to get involved. “It just looked like so much fun. It motivated me. Plus, it’s something we can do together. In fact, one time, Bella helped me to push the stroller with Gabby and Rosa
across a finish line,” Monica said. “And she used to ride in it, the same stroller that I’ve had for 11 years, and here she was pushing it over the finish line. It was really
You can find Daniel and Monica running around town before the sun rises with other runners in the Ave Maria community.
The family lives in Emerson Park and owns a few other rental properties throughout Ave. Daniel, who has always been interested in real estate, is an agent for 84° Real Estate, a job he really enjoys. Monica describes Dan as a problem solver, and he feels like helping people to learn about the industry, buy, sell, and find the right homes for their families, allows him the oppor tunity to help solve problems every day. He also manages the Braden Clinic, which is located in La Piazza. “I have two
very rewarding jobs,” Daniel said, “and I continue to feel blessed by this community. I have lived in France, Italy, Washington D.C., all over , and Ave Maria is where I want to be.”
Monica has enjoyed staying home with her five beautiful girls whom she had been homeschooling, but is now transitioning into having four of them in school in Naples and just having Rosa home with her. She’s looking forward to maybe taking an art class or two. When she was pregnant with Rosa, she would come home from working at the Montessori school feeling so sick, she would just sit in a chair and rest. She recalls not being able to read or watch TV because it would make her feel nauseous, but drawing made her feel good. She started drawing her family while they were watching TV because it was the only time they would sit still and realized the drawings were pretty good. “I noticed that people who had known me for six or seven years by then had no idea I was an artist, and I thought, ‘who’s fault is that?!’ I felt like I was hiding a part of me,” Monica said. Since then, she’s always made time to draw.
Daniel and Monica celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary this August and enjoy living an active and healthy lifestyle. They feel so blessed to call this wonderful community home.
These days, on a Sunday after Mass, the family of seven (eight including Swagger ), can be found together at home. Chet Baker plays on their stereo, while the family enjoys a spread of bread, gluten free crackers, meats, cheeses and fruit. The girls excitedly talk about the upcoming start of school, cracking jokes with each other and taking turns sharing stories.
It is great to see the love and admiration that the girls have for their parents and their perseverance through the more difficult times. One of Daniel’s most priceless memories is from when he was running the Napa Valley Marathon in California and Bella was watching the race with her aunt. Daniel suffered a pretty severe injury during the race which slowed him down tremendously. Bella waited and waited for him at the finish line. After learning of the injury, Bella’s aunt suggested they go looking for Daniel because perhaps he wouldn’t be able to finish the race. Bella insisted no, they should not do that because “Dixes never quit!” Shortly after, she cheered loudly as she watched him hobble across the finish line. She was right. If this example alone didn’t prove it, every piece of their lives leading up to it has made it abundantly clear that if one thing is for certain, it’s that Dixes never quit.
By Meli Neubek and Taresa Fassbender – originally published as the cover story for the inaugural issue of the print magazine Ave Maria Living, Issue #1, September 2016.