Waterbury is the fifth-largest city in Connecticut and is often called the “Brass City,” an homage to its centuries-old roots as a producer of the alloy. It is the birthplace of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, the original Mickey Mouse watch, and Timex. The city is also home to Holy Land USA, a defunct interactive Bible scene set across eighteen acres in the center of town. For the last sixty years its lighted “Peace Cross” on top of the mountain has stood as a beacon for Waterbury and I-84 motorists.
Construction of the attraction began in 1957, the work of a devout Catholic lawyer with help from an army of volunteers. During the 1960s and 70s the 200-piece Holy Land USA was a popular attraction, drawing 40,000 visitors per year at its peak. When its founder and chief caretaker became frail in the 1980s, so did the park. It was closed in 1984 and left in the hands of under-equipped nuns, who for the next thirty years watched over the site as its features became overgrown and vandals hastened its demise.
cover photo courtesy Justina Villanueva
John Baptist Greco
The son of Italian immigrants, John Baptist Greco was a Waterbury, Connecticut native. He was a devout Roman Catholic who spent part of his adolescence in Avellino, Italy, before finishing school in the United States.
Greco wanted to be a priest and spent his youth studying classics in the church sacristy. He enrolled at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. but was forced to drop out due to finances and illness. A scholarship took John Greco to Yale University, where he studied law before passing the bar exam in 1926.
Law was Greco’s profession, but his passion was his faith. In 1934 he founded the Catholic Campaigners for Christ (CCC) as a vehicle for sharing the message of the Bible at a grassroots level. The Campaigners performed social functions, such as delivering sermons in the street and building nativity scenes out of scrap materials around town during Christmas.
The group also assisted the Civilian Conservation Corps during their Roosevelt-era camps. Greco visited the camps and noted how the Federal government’s use of films and visual aids improved the educational process. “Every time I used to go to the camps – as soon as the boys found out I had a film, they would all flock in.”
In the 1940s John Greco and friend Anthony Coviello were pursuing a movement to “put Christ back into Christmas.” The men spent their free time during the holidays constructing Nativity scenes for Waterbury and its neighboring towns.
It was in 1943 while Greco was setting up a Campaigners manger scene in the town square the idea to build Holy Land U.S.A. took root in his mind. He enjoyed building the displays, but wanted to do more than the Nativity – Greco wanted to tell the story of the Bible through displays, props, and scenes. This impulse to build stemmed from the Roman Catholic and Italian traditions of honoring saints via the homemade creation of grottos, nativity scenes, passion plays, and statuary.
“[John Greco] was a very, very humble man. He would take cases and oftentimes he didn’t charge his clients. But he wouldn’t take divorce cases.”
– Reverend Augustine Giusani
The Peace Cross and Bethlehem Village
During World War II the factories of Waterbury were busy churning out artillery shells. The post-war years hit the city hard; orders slowed and the factories cut jobs. As people fled Waterbury, real estate values collapsed. John Greco seized the opportunity to acquire inexpensive land for his endeavor. In 1953 he purchased an undesirable 17.7-acre parcel on Pine Hill above Waterbury’s largest factory from Milton and Mitchell Meyers, brothers who were both judges.
Greco says he chose Pine Hill because “the terrain is very much in our favor. It lends itself easily to the original. Everything in the Bible took place on the heights. The laws of Moses came on the heights, Christ preached his sermon on the mount and he died on a mountain. All these things took place on a hill like we have here.“
After Greco purchased Pine Hill, he and Coviello began planning the Peace Cross, the first phase of the project. In November of 1956 in front of an audience of 1,000, the men raised a 32-foot, neon-bedecked crucifix on Pine Hill. To Greco and Coviello the cross was a beacon of hope, intended to inspire and keep prayer in the lives of all who saw it.
Before it was known as Holy Land U.S.A., John Greco called his collection of displays Bethlehem Village. Construction on Bethlehem Village began in 1956 when Greco was able to enlist a cadre of volunteer laborers —the self-proclaimed “Companions of Christ”—to create his various religious scenes from donated and reclaimed building materials. After studying maps, photographs, and the Bible, Greco laid out plans for his village. For additional research he traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and even brought back rocks and soil for exhibits.
Because Greco maintained a full-time law practice, Bethlehem Village’s construction took place on weekday afternoons and weekends. With help from the Campaigners and Companions, Greco and his volunteers built the displays out of plastic, stone, wire, and scrap lumber. Building materials and consumer goods were salvaged while appliances were re-purposed. Piles of old bricks and chunks of cement and cinder blocks were transformed into dramatic mountainside scenes. Local churches and Catholic organizations also donated materials for the exhibits.
Complementing the small structures were a cast-metal Christ on a cross, a Garden of Eden, an exhibit of the Holy Shroud of Turin, yellow-painted golden calves, and a replica 200 foot-long Catacombs. Figures and saints were represented by statues and old department store mannequins. The park’s prize donation – an exhibit taken directly from the Vatican Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair – arrived years later.
Official Opening & Press
Bethlehem Village was officially dedicated and opened on December 1st, 1958. A large wooden sign greeted guests at the gate:
“A group of men who present a pictorial story in the life of Christ from the cradle to the Cross – it is our prayerful wish that the project will provide a pleasant way to increase your knowledge of God’s Own Book and bring you closer to Him.”
John Greco and his volunteers were successful in creating a buzz about Holy Land U.S.A. through travel brochures, radio advertisements, and by hosting field trips. Local papers described the new attraction as “consisting of more than 125 buildings of plywood and stainless steel. Colored lights have been installed at the ‘village’ which will be open throughout the year.”
The Hartford Courant toured Holy Land U.S.A. during Christmas of 1960 and observed “the statue of the Good Shepherd, imported from Italy at a cost of $1,000, is seen rescuing a lost sheep trapped in a crevice.”
The AAA Auto Club of Hartford featured Holy Land U.S.A. in its marketing campaign in the early 1970s to publicize nearby trips to “Help Conserve Gas.”
In a July 1974 issue of the Hartford Courant, Holy Land U.S.A. was billed as one of AAA’s “Trips for Tankful Travelers.”
“We don’t try to convert anybody, we just show them what we believe.”
– John Greco
From Bible Land to Holy Land U.S.A.
The number of displays in Bethlehem Village continued to grow, eventually leaving the realm of Bethlehem-related messages and stories. To better describe his growing number of scenes, Greco changed the park’s name to Bible Land.
This however changed again when Greco mused over the idea of adding a large illuminated mountainside sign – similar to the iconic sign of Hollywood Hills – to beckon to I-84 motorists. Thus, Holy Land U.S.A. was born.
Visitors to Holy Land U.S.A. during its peak years of the 1960s and 70s were treated to an hour-long tour of exhibitions that included a replica of Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, Gethsemane, the Temptations of Christ, Mount Zion, and the West Wall. The park also featured a chapel, library and gift shop, and information center – and in the early 1970s the Holy Land Convent was added. Directly behind the main gates was “Manger Square,” featuring the Nativity scene. The Peace Cross was replaced with a bigger, brighter version in 1968, and at its apex around 1969, Holy Land consisted of more than 200 miniature buildings and displays.
Admission was free, although Mr. Greco accepted 50-cent parking contributions.
[ In Good Company: In the mid-1960s there was a “Holy Land USA” In Del Rio, Texas, owned and operated by the “Rev. Billy Sol Harges, minister of the First Church of Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship.” There were plans in the early 1970s for a theme park in Alabama called Holy Land USA, but the $20 million “Disney-type theme park” was later re-named “Bible City” – possibly to avoid confusion with Greco’s park. ]
Under the Care of Religious Teachers Filippini
By the early 1970s the aging Greco was having a tough time keeping up with maintenance and operations of his Bible-themed creation. In 1972 the Archdiocese of Hartford assigned two nuns from the Religious Teachers Filippini (RTF) to assist Greco with the operation of Holy Land.
The nuns, who resided with Greco at the convent outside the gates of the park, helped by cleaning, giving tours, and operating the gift shop. They also allowed John Greco to re-focus his efforts from operations to creating new displays. A New York Times article in March of 1974 claimed Greco’s monument was “nearly finished” and “only the Dead Sea remains to be built.”
[ The Peace Cross went dark for the first time during the energy crisis of the 1970s. ]
photos courtesy RoadTripMemories
In 1974 Holy Land U.S.A. attracted 40,000 visitors, with peak weekends seeing up to 30 buses and 500 cars. Despite the solid numbers through the gates that year, the park’s troubles began. First came the Interstate 84 expansion, which displaced the original catacombs. Greco appealed to the public through newspapers ads and “Save the Catacombs” prayer groups. His attempts failed to stop I-84, and Greco was forced to rebuild the Catacombs in another direction – although as a concession the city improved access to Holy Land U.S.A. with a new, paved, two-lane black top that led up the hill directly to the gates.
Also in 1974 were a series of fires that swept across Pine Hill, destroying bushes, trees, and many of the displays in Holy Land. Lost in the fires were the Garden of Eden, the Gates of Damascus, the Laws of God, and two towers from Jerusalem. “The worst of it was the firemen,” Mr. Greco said. “They came in with axes and knocked everything down.”
After the fires, vandals continued the demolition by wrecking the cafeteria, gift shop, and library across multiple nights. They also destroyed the roof of the Nativity Cave, the exhibit about St. Sebastian, and the walls of the new Catacombs. “We were frightened after that,” said Sister Josephine of the RTF.
By 1977 the park was a shell of its former self. The damaged displays from the 1974 fires were never rebuilt and the park had acquired a reputation as being a bad area at night. Fewer tourists came; in 1977 attendance had fallen to 20,000. Health issues at his advanced age left John Greco unable to keep pace with the work being done by deterioration and vandals. Despite his best efforts, the site continued to fall into disarray.
“The era in which John Greco built [Holy Land U.S.A.] is gone. It was a different world then.”
– Sister Frances Stavalo, Religious Teachers Filippini
Holy Land Closure & Death of Greco
For the last twenty-five years of his life, John Greco lived with two nuns in the convent at the base of Holy Land. He was ill and no longer able to perform park maintenance. In 1984, the 88 year-old Greco closed Holy Land U.S.A. Two years later John Baptist Greco passed away after battling a long illness.
Prior to his death in March of 1986, Greco donated the park via quitclaim deed to the Religious Teachers Filippini. Upon his death he left the order with millions of dollars for the continued upkeep of Holy land U.S.A.
John Greco was celebrated for his generosity and vision. He was made an honorary citizen of Bethlehem and a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII. Sister Lucille noted how interesting it was that “after being turned away from the church based on his health, Greco was able to touch more people on his own than he might ever have as a priest.”
Before he died, Greco had been working with an architect to improve the park and turn things around. He left the nuns with enough money to not only rehabilitate Holy Land U.S.A., but expand it. Estimates for the expansion reached $13 million. Things were looking up.
Then disaster struck. Sister Lucille claims the nuns were robbed of the millions left by John Greco. “The money was pouring in. And then the man we hired to help us manage the finances, a layperson, absconded with all the funds. We have been hurt many times and nobody knows that sort of thing took place here. The man had helped rebuild another church and we thought he could do the same thing for us. But, something went wrong with him. I don’t know….“
Rocky Life After Greco
After Holy Land closed, several proposals were floated to renovate and redevelop the site. The most ambitious came in the late 1980s from Hartford Archbishop John Whealon, who proposed an elaborate religious theme park with walks through full Bible scenes. Instead of using old bricks and plaster, the displays would be built on a greater scale and feature proper construction. The bid failed to secure financing and ultimately failed.
In 1988 the Catholic Campaigners for Christ announced it would tear down Holy Land’s chapel and fill in the remains of the 200-foot-long Catacombs. Citing reasons that included insurance and safety costs, the group sent a bulldozer. In response, the Committee to Preserve Holy Land was established, which organized a petition that amassed 1,000 signatures to leave the site intact.
The group organized demonstrations, started a “Save Holy Land” quilt, and one member even vowed to chain himself and a 12-foot cross to the park’s front gate. In response to the protests, Campaigners official Jerry Raimo said “We are not destroying Holy Land. Just a small part – the chapel and the catacombs.”
By the mid-1990s the park was heavily overgrown. Holy Land’s displays had retreated into the foliage of Pine Hill, disappearing from public view. Failed mounts left the letters disjointed, and tilting away from the sign. In 1997 a group of Boy Scouts rescued the Holy Land U.S.A. sign as part of a community service project. Brush was cleared, letter mounts were repaired, and the sign was restored.
Holy Land was the subject of another revival attempt in the spring of 2001, when Hartford Archbishop Daniel Cronin revealed his desire to see Holy Land rebuilt. Reverend Augustine Giusani was brought in to oversee the estimated $10 million dollar restoration and lead the project’s fundraising.
In May of 2001 volunteers began showing up every weekend to cut trees and clear away the brush and overgrowth. The group was able to clean up Pine Hill, but since the nuns officially owned the property there was little else the Archbishop or the volunteers could do (the Sisters’ order is not diocesan, meaning the nuns answer directly to the Pope and not the archbishop).
Yet another attempt at a Holy Land revival came in 2003, when former Waterbury city official Frank Davino organized hundreds of people and arranged for close to one million dollars in financing as part of a five-year plan to renovate Holy Land U.S.A.
The group was stone-walled by the nuns, who had become jaded by the actions of the scores of trespassers and vandals. Concerned with threats of further degradation, liability, and modification of Greco’s original displays, the nuns rebuffed all efforts by the public to assist with rebuilding Holy Land and replacing the Peace Cross.
One Holy Land enthusiast recalls an encounter with the nuns: “We asked them if we could put the manger scene together for Christmas and invite the public up to see our progress. Their response was, ‘What do you think this is Disneyland?’”
By 2005 the 56-foot steel cross, originally erected in 1968, had become structurally unsound. In May of 2008 a crew dismantled the weather-beaten cross and replaced it with a smaller, fully galvanized unit. For the first time in its history the Peace Cross did not contain lights inside the cross; instead four lights were installed at the base. The $250,000 project was dedicated on June 18th, 2008.
”Eighty thousand people see the cross every day when they drive by on I-84. When the lights don’t come on at night, I get calls from prominent business people saying: ‘The cross is out! The cross is out!‘”
– Jerry Raimo, CCC
Evolution of the Peace Cross
- 1956: 32-foot, neon-lit cross installed. 1,000 people attended the dedication in November of 1956. At night it glowed with large green and red neon lights.
- 1968: 56-foot illuminated stainless steel cross installed. Longest serving Peace Cross at Holy Land, the weather-worn cross was replaced after 40 years.
- 2008: A Dedication for the new, 50-foot $250,000 Peace Cross took place on June 18th, 2008. Built of structural steel, it has no neon or mounted lights on the cross itself. The spotlights at its base eventually broke and were not always replaced; the 2008 cross failed to live up to its predecessors on the hilltop.
- 2013: A new 16-ton, 52-tall illuminated cross was erected by Friends of Holy Land U.S.A., on December 20th, 2013. It has a 26-foot wingspan and 5,000 LED bulbs shine from inside the cross. The cross cost “next to nothing” to build because all the contractors and workers supplied the materials and the labor free (the donated steel alone was worth more than $100,000). The only expense was the LED lights.
“From my perspective, [the Peace Cross] is the identifier of this blue-collar, middle-class city that was built from immigrants from all over the world, of all different backgrounds and colors and religions.”
– Neil O’Leary, Waterbury Mayor
[ Holy Land U.S.A. in pop culture: In 1970 Holy Land U.S.A. had a several-minute cameo in the movie Wanda. In 1990 the Flaming Lips filmed their music video for “Unconsciously Screamin” in Holy Land U.S.A. The site was also featured in a four-minute segment on The Daily Show in November of 2002. ]
Tragedy and Sale
Holy Land’s darkest days came in the summer of 2010. In June of that year 16 year-old Chloe Ottman was raped and stabbed to death at the base of the Peace Cross. A 19 year-old Waterbury man was arrested and later sentenced to 55 years in prison for the crimes. According to police Captain Christopher Corbett, “this is an isolated incident, this is not indicative of any widespread problem up at Holy Land.”
The murder was the last straw for the nuns, who left the convent on Slocum Street and in 2011 put Holy Land up for sale for $750,000. An all-cash offer of $200,000 came from Frank Davino, which included terms of building a security fence around the perimeter of the property and allowing the nuns to stay in the convent. His offer was declined, and the former theme park failed to find a buyer for two years.
In early 2013 the nuns cut the price for Holy Land to $500,000, which according to property agent John Mancini has seen “many, many potential buyers, but nothing has come about. I’ve shown it many, many times, but nothing right now.” The listing was updated to include a lower price of $350,000 in May of 2013, accompanied by the following description:
“5 large buildings, with 1 Chapel located on 17.7 acres, this is HOLY LAND, many fantastic opportunities here, close to highways, easy access! There are 14 rooms, 5 bathrooms and 2 parking spaces on the former theme park.”
The price drops prompted Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and local businessman Fred Blasius to form Friends of Holy Land Waterbury, U.S.A., with the intent of buying the 17.7-acre property. The men promised the nuns they would preserve the site for “religious and Christian purposes,” signing a purchase and sale agreement for the $350,000 property on June 20th, 2013.
Fundraising commenced immediately, and a month later more than 100 donors had contributed $30,000 toward the cause. Eventually the Friends of Holy Land Waterbury found 900 contributors around the country, allowing them to close on the property on October 17th, 2013.
As for the nuns, they offered no guidance or protest to the park’s future owners. “Whoever makes an offer on the property will be able to do with it what they will,” said Sister Takacs. “Some have expressed an interest to revive it. It’s their responsibility to do what they want.”
Friends of Holy Land Waterbury U.S.A., LLC
The first task for O’Leary and Blasius was to replace the underwhelming 2008 version of the Peace Cross. On December 20th, 2013, construction crews erected the Holy Land’s fourth Peace Cross, officially unveiled during a lighting ceremony two days later.
The 16-ton, 52-foot illuminated steel cross contains 5,000 LEDs that shine from inside the cross. Labor and materials were supplied with donations, leaving LED lights as the only purchase expense. The Friends revealed costs of $10,000 per year to cover insurance and keep the cross illuminated.
On September 14th, 2014 the Friends of Holy Land Waterbury re-opened the park for a day to give visitors a chance to see the park during its rehabilitation. After several months of work, acres of the grounds had been cleared of brush and overgrown trees. The Holy Land U.S.A. sign was visible for the first time in years. More than 1,000 visitors attended for the preview and an Inaugural Mass held inside a chapel on the Holy Land property, and Timex, the watch company with historic ties to Waterbury, announced they would create a Holy Land watch.
Holy Land U.S.A. Today
Despite being closed for more than thirty years, the park remains popular with tourists around the country. Dana Alsdorf of the Waterbury Convention and Visitors Bureau says not one month goes by without at least one phone call asking about Holy Land. “I’m still getting calls from churches down South that want to bring whole busloads of people to visit.’‘
Today much of the park’s support surprisingly comes from the art community rather than the religious community. In the religious community outside of Waterbury the park finds fewer friends. Rev. Jaime Lara, a Catholic priest and chairman of the religion and arts program at Yale University Divinity School, thought Holy Land U.S.A. seemed inspired by “miniature golf settings and pious lawn sculpture.” He thinks it was “sort of cute, even in the 50’s, and I’m not sure that cute cuts it. I think the train station in Waterbury is more interesting architecturally.”
According to Steve Gambini, aide to the Waterbury mayor, the likelihood of selling the property in the future is slim. “The problem with that property is it sits on a ledge outcropping and the development potential is limited by the amount of dynamite you can throw at it. It’s a topographically challenging area…and the city would have no interest in it because we don’t really like to get into the land business.”
Commercial real estate broker Tom Hill said he suspects many developers are put off by the location and topography of Holy Land. “The 17 acres is a rocky, hilly mountain and the attraction has been completely destroyed by the vandals and lack of maintenance every year by the owners of the property. The market is so weak for housing in Waterbury and the site is so rocky and rough, I don’t think the economics would work out for the developer to make a profit after.”
For now, what remains of the displays continues to crumble. Beyond the chained entrance and “No Trespassing” signs, beer cans and weeds have overtaken the grounds. Vandals have shaped Holy Land now: Two camels next to the manger scene are missing their heads. Past that is the statue of Christ with no hands and no head, and beyond that is a beheaded camel. Up the hill, the Christ on the cross at Calvary is missing an arm. Walking up the path to the Peace Cross today, it reads like a vandalism timeline; you can tell when they got bored.
Wood everywhere is rotting, leading to collapsed arches and a failed roof in Herod’s Temple. Rain, sun, and wind have taken turns destroying the text of exhibits and signs not buried in overgrowth. The six-foot tall Holy Land U.S.A. sign on the side of Pine Hill has been excavated from foliage several times, but without routine grounds maintenance it finds itself buried with regularity. Recently the “U.S.A.” portion collapsed, leaving “Holy Land” by itself.
What does the future hold for Holy Land? Only the commandments are set in stone. It is unlikely Greco’s original displays will be restored, however the park’s current owners have promised to retain the Peace Cross and a Christian theme. Thanks to the Friends of Holy Land Waterbury, Greco’s creation has hope for survival.
Other notable religious-themed parks:
* Ave Maria Grotto (Cullman, Alabama)
* Grotto of Redemption (West Bend, Iowa)
* The Holy Land Experience (Orlando, Florida)
* Tierra Santa (Buenos Aires, Argentina)