Jun 12, 2014
12:53 PMConnecticut Today
Holy Land U.S.A. in Waterbury Is Being Resurrected
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Last June on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Neil O'Leary, the mayor of Waterbury, set out by himself to visit Holy Land U.S.A., or at least what was left of it. The religious theme park was built on Pine Hill (one of the Waterbury’s most prominent peaks) in the 1950s by John Baptist Greco, an attorney and ardent Catholic. Working with volunteers and using discarded items, like old cinderblocks and bathtubs, he created sculptures and scenes from the bible on the hillside that depict the life of Jesus Christ from his birth to crucifixion. During its heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s Holy Land attracted as many 40,000 visitors a year.
The park closed in the 1980s and by the time of O’Leary’s visit last summer it had long since fallen into dramatic disrepair. There were headless statues of religious figures, decaying biblical scenes and rusted lines of scripture written here and there. The iconic cross atop the mountain, which would light up at night and was a distinctive part of Waterbury’s landscape for decades, had deteriorated and in 2008 it was replaced by a much smaller cross that did not light up on its own.
It was the cross that had brought O’Leary to Holy Land. (Photo above courtesy of Holy Land Waterbury)
The original cross had been erected in the 1950s and had been replaced by a nearly identical cross in the 1970s. Many saw both the original cross and its initial replacement as symbols of Waterbury. Strikingly visible from I-84 and Route 8, it was a beacon that symbolized home to many residents. But the 2008 cross did not live up to its predecessors on the hilltop.
"You couldn’t’ see the cross like you could see it city-wide in all those previous years,” O’Leary recalls. That was a sore point for many residents. “When I was running for mayor in the summer of 2011, I was visiting a lot of the elderly buildings in town and everyplace I went the elderly people were complaining to me about the size of the replacement cross.”
Soon afterward, the property, which is approximately 18 acres, was put up for sale. If sold it was possible the property would be developed and Holy Land would only exist in memories.
After he won the election, O’Leary felt there was little he could appropriately do in his official capacity as Mayor, but as a private citizen—one who grew up in Waterbury—he felt he had a duty to save and restore an important part of Waterbury’s history.
When Greco, the park’s founder died in 1986, the land was left to a small and reclusive order of nuns, the Filippini Sisters. With limited resources, the nuns did little to maintain the property. Members of the Waterbury community had tried to organize restoration efforts at the site in the past but they had trouble coordinating efforts with the Filippini Sisters.
Waterbury native and Holy Land enthusiast Bill Fitzpatrick recalls that the nuns were resistant to reopening the site to the public.
“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?’”
(Evidently, the Filippini sisters were concerned with liability issues and trespassing. The site was frequently vandalized and in 2010 a 16-year-old was murdered at the base of the cross).
O’Leary was no stranger to challenges. He had joined the Waterbury Police Department in 1980 and rose through the ranks, becoming Chief of Police in 2004. In 2007, he received national attention for standing by a local rape victim, known to the public then only as “Jane Doe,” and ultimately solving the crime eleven years later.
But the sea of challenges surrounding Holy Land did not immediately part for O’Leary. The nuns did not want an outside group erecting a new cross, and by 2012 they had stopped returning his phone calls. He learned from a realtor that they were willing to sell the property for $750,000, an amount that made it impossible for O’Leary “to even dream about acquiring the property.”
Such was the situation when O’Leary visited the site on that afternoon last summer. During the visit he saw the new (small cross) that couldn’t be seen off of the hilltop, and he saw the spot where the old cross had stood, visible for miles in any direction day or night.
There’s a sense of “pride and hope and peace that we think emanates from that cross at night,” says O’Leary, “we didn’t want to lose that.” As he looked at the site, he decided to contact the nuns again and try one more time to resurrect Waterbury’s Holy Land.