Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Holy Land USA

If you've ever driven through The Center of the Universe (also known as Waterbury, Connecticut) on I-84, you've seen it. Indeed, it's distinctly visible from many points in the Brass City  even at night, as it's made of glass and has light bulbs inside it. I'm talking, of course, about the 52-foot cross on Pine Hill.

Photo by Holy Land Waterbury, USA, Inc. 

Although the cross you see above was erected in 2013, there has been a large cross on Pine Hill since the 1950s. The current cross replaced a stainless steel cross that had been erected in 2008: 

This stainless cross was erected in 2008. In 2013, it was taken down to make way for the new cross. At some point while it was lying on the ground, it was vandalized. (Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency

In turn, the 2008 cross had replaced a 56-foot cross, which had been installed in 1968.

The 1968 cross. Photo © Francisco Jimenez

The 1968 cross was similar to the current cross, the main difference being that it was not as technologically sophisticated and therefore only lit up in yellow, in contrast to the current cross, which has been lit in a number of different colors since it was inaugurated.

The 1968 cross at night. Photo for the Hartford Courant by Stephen Dunn
Promotional material for Holy Land Waterbury, USA, Inc., showing the current cross lit in purple.
The current cross lit in green, as seen from St. Anne's Church in Waterbury, Connecticut.  Photo by shutterbroke, usa.

The 1968 cross replaced the original Waterbury cross, which was erected in 1956.

The 1956 cross. Photo belongs to Jennifer A. Bremer/Roadtripmemories.com

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the cross, in its various incarnations, became a well-known symbol of Waterbury. Believe it or not, pilots have been known to use the lighted cross to orient themselves during night flights. Less surprisingly, many people who have driven through Waterbury know this city primarily for the cross. What many people who visit and/or pass through the city may not realize, however, is that the famous lighted cross was for many years the centerpiece of Holy Land USA, a biblical theme park that attracted tens of thousands of visitors during its heyday.

Photo from RoadTripMemories
Photo from messynessychic.com.

Opened to the public in 1956, Holy Land USA was the brainchild of John Baptist Greco, a local Italian-American attorney who was a devout Roman Catholic. Besides the cross, Holy Land featured miniature representations of various Bible stories. Its miniature buildings — which Greco built from cinder blocks, old bathtubs, and other used and donated building materials — were designed to evoke places mentioned in the Bible, such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Passages from Scripture were carved into structures throughout the theme park. 

John Baptist Greco. Photo from Sometimes-Interesting.com

I was born in Portugal, but I grew up in Waterbury. You can imagine, then, that Holy Land USA and its wondrous cross was an important part of my childhood. For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with monuments and landmarks, and so Holy Land did not escape my notice and fascination. Indeed, I still vividly remember the 1968 cross. One of my happiest childhood memories is that of my parents taking me up that hill to see the cross up close. In addition to the cross, I was also thrilled to see what was left of Holy Land’s attractions. The miniature Biblical buildings reminded me of a Portuguese Christmas tradition: the display of Nativity scenes, or presépios, some of which can be quite elaborate, such as the one seen below:

This Nativity scene is actually Italian. Photo from adventureswithsarah.net.

Indeed, because of my interest in unusual monuments and buildings, when I was a child my mom made me a fairly elaborate presépio (though not quite as elaborate as the one seen above), which absolutely delighted me. 

Holy Land’s little buildings also reminded me of an American Christmas tradition: the Rankin/Bass Claymation Christmas specials, which feature charming puppet-like characters interacting in miniature villages.

Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

You’ve noticed, no doubt, that I said what was left of Holy Land’s attractions. This is because by the time I was born, Holy Land USA had long been shuttered, abandoned, and allowed to slowly but surely deteriorate. In 1984, Greco closed Holy Land to the public. His intention was to renovate and expand the theme park. These plans, however, never came to fruition. In 1986, Greco passed away, leaving the park to an order of Catholic nuns. Greco also left the nuns millions of dollars with which to restore to park, but, unfortunately, the nuns’ financial advisor abruptly walked away from the project and took the money with him! As a result, while the nuns maintained an active convent on the site of Holy Land, they never reopened the park to the public, leaving it abandoned. Since then, the theme park’s attractions have largely fallen into ruins. In addition to normal wear and tear, repeated waves of vandalism also took their toll on the property. To look at recent pictures of Holy Land USA is to see the sad, slow downfall of one man’s vision. In my estimation, the current state of disrepair in which Holy Land attractions — and the Christian teachings inscribed on their walls — exist is a distressingly apt metaphor for the current state of Christianity in today’s society.  

Some attractions at Holy Land USA, during the park's heyday (left) and more recently (right). Photos from RoadTripMemories

Some recent pictures of Holy Land USA, taken from this Daily Mail article

Since the park’s closure in 1984, there have been several attempts to revive Holy Land, but none of these efforts have gotten very far. Most recently, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and car dealer Fritz Blasius purchased the property from the nuns in 2013. They installed the current illuminated cross and said they planned to restore the park and reopen it to the public. This effort, too, seems to have fallen by the wayside, as the park remains abandoned and officially closed to the public in 2017.

Whatever happens to Holy Land in the future, we can all pay tribute to John Greco’s little theme park this Christmas season by building a presépio and/or by enjoying classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. We would also do well to remember to keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year by consistently doing our best to treat others with kindness and generosity. As an inscription on Holy Land’s Nativity attraction used to read, “Every day is Christmas.” 

Photo from messynessychic.com


If you're interested in learning more about Holy Land USA, this article contains tons of information, including many links to additional readings. It's by far the most complete account of Holy Land that I know of. 

To see more pictures of Holy Land USA (both in its heyday and currently), see this article and this article

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