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 was—and once again may be—Holy Land USA.
Like a biblical epic, there have been times of triumph and times of despair for this destination. Even though more recently the 18-acre park has suffered through decades of disrepair, there was a time in the 1960s 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), was officially closed to the public, but the curious—and the vandals—still made pilgrimages. When we visited in 2009, most of the displays and exhibits were either crumbling or in complete ruin, yet there was something about the slow decline of the place that continues to make it compelling.
In April 2008, the old iconic neon cross was taken down and replaced with a shorter, more durable one, although it didn't light up quite like the old one. I guess you could say the spirit had gone out of the place.
Tragically in July 2010, a 16-year-old girl was raped and murdered on the grounds, prompting tighter security.
In June 2013, former Waterbury mayor Neil O'Leary and car dealer Fred "Fritz" Blasius purchased the property from the Filippini Sisters for $350,000. The pair announced that they were going refurbish the park and run it once again as a tourist attraction. To that end, a new illuminated cross was erected in November 2013, and the grounds were spruced up a bit.
As it turns, the effort to officially re-open Holy Land USA has fallen by the wayside in recent years, so the parks still sits empty.
However, the giant cross continues to light the darkness of the valley each night, standing silent vigil to one man's grand dream.
Our Damned Experience: As mentioned, we made the pilgrimage to Holy Land USA in April 2009, and after getting permission to visit from the nuns of the order who owned the property at the time, were 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.
As we expected, Holy Land was in a state of great disrepair. Many of the faded structures were either crumbling or had 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 littered the site—along with a lot of actual litter. Seeing the site was a bit of a disjointed shamble to start with, the ensuing deterioration hadn’t helped any.
Despite how decrepit it was, it was 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 were randomly grouped together, and it was clear he gave a lot of attention to detail. With how many structures there were and how much of the hillside it encompasses, it was 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 were three crosses representing Cavalry Hill, while a short distance to the south and looming over all of Holy Land was the aforementioned second shiny cross. It wasn't as big as the original, and it was a bit harder to see from various points down in the valley (such as Route 8 or I-84). It was still impressive in its own right. The view of the surrounding area from the top of the hill was also impressive.
As you might think, it was bittersweet to see such a wonderfully weird place as Holy Land USA in that state of ruin—without a doubt, it must’ve been quite a moving sight in its heyday.
If You Go: Holy Land is on Slocum Road in Waterbury. Even with the recent redemption effort, it's still not open to the public.