The Damned Story: We've all seen it while driving along either Route 8 or I-84 through Waterbury: the huge cross high atop Pine Hill. Many already know about it, but the 50-foot high cross marks the spot that was once Holy Land USA.
Although the abandoned 18-acre park is now in disrepair, there was a time in the 60s and 70s when the attraction drew 40,000 visitors per year -- picture a Wally World for the religious faithful, without a Tilt-a-Whirl. After receiving a message from his god in the 1950s, local attorney John Greco singlehandedly created the park as an homage to the Holy Land in Israel, fashioning miniature versions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem from chicken wire, plywood, fiberglass and plaster as well as adding dioramas of other key biblical locales. By the time he was done, he had created over 200 unique structures.
Holy Land USA officially closed in 1984. ("Sorry kids, Holy Land is closed. The messiah out front should have told you.") The park, left by Greco in his will to an order of nuns (the Religious Teachers Fillipini), is now closed to the public, but the curious -- and vandals -- still make pilgrimages. Most of the displays and exhibits are either crumbling or in complete ruins, but there's something about the slow decline of the place which makes it compelling.
In April 2008, the old iconic neon cross was taken down and replaced with a shorter, more durable one, although it doesn't light up quite like the old one. I guess you could say the spirit has gone out of the place.
For some great pictures of Holy Land during its hey day during the 1950s and '60s, check out roadtripmemories.com.
Our Damned Experience: We finally made the pilgrimage to Holy Land USA in April 2009, and after getting permission to visit from the nuns of the order who currently own the property, made one of Kate’s dreams not involving corn come true by being able to roam about freely and take as many pictures as we like. And being photo freaks, we snapped away to our hearts’ content — see the gallery below. (That's Steve in the 2nd to last one standing atop the hill.)
As we expected, Holy Land is in a state of great disrepairMany of the faded structures are either crumbling or have been destroyed by vandals, creating an almost literal post-apocalyptic feel, what with the religious overtones and all. Broken mortar, splintered beams, smashed walls and exposed chicken wire litter the site — along with a lot of actual litter. Seeing that the site was a bit of a disjointed shamble to start with, the ensuing deterioration hasn’t helped any.
Despite how decrepit it is now, however, it’s hard to not be impressed at the fevered effort Greco must have expended bringing his religious vision to life. Many of the small-scale buildings and shrines are randomly grouped together, and it’s clear he gave a lot of attention to detail. With how many structures there are and how much of the hillside it encompasses, it’s sort of amazing and weird at the same time to consider that it was all the work of one person.
At the top of the hill to north are three crosses representing Cavalry Hill, while a short distance to the south and looming over all of Holy Land is the aforementioned brand new shiny cross. It’s not as big as the old one, and a bit harder to see from various points down in the valley (such as Route 8 or I-84), but it’s still impressive in its own right. The view of the surrounding area while standing under the cross is quite nice, also.
As you might think, it’s sad to see such a wonderfully weird place as Holy Land USA in its current state of ruin — without a doubt, it must’ve been quite a sight in its heyday.
If You Go: Holy Land is on Slocum Road in Waterbury. It's not open to the public, but if you get permission from the nuns (and please do -- Steve just went up and knocked on the door and politely asked if we could go in and take pictures, so there's no need to willingly trespass), you can park near the entrance and walk around the entrance gate.